What are the symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome?

In this brief guide we are going to answer the question ‘’What are the symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome?’’ we will explain what fetal alcohol syndrome is, what the symptoms are, how it can affect the baby’s development and the mother’s health by drinking during pregnancy.

What are the symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome?

Symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome are:

  • A very thin upper lip.
  • A smooth crease between the upper lip and nose.
  • Undersized eyes.
  • Small head (reflects less brain development).
  • Delayed growth and development.
  • Sucking and sleeping problems.

How does alcohol consumption affect pregnancy?

Drinking patterns that may be a low risk at the individual level may be associated with the development of negative health and social effects.

It is therefore important to reduce the harm suffered by those in the drinker’s environment and by exposed populations at higher risk, such as children, adolescents, women of childbearing age, pregnant and lactating women, and other at-risk groups.

Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can produce physical, mental and motor deficiencies in the baby that can affect it throughout its life.

These consequences can manifest themselves at birth or later during development.

Of all substances of abuse, alcohol is one of the most dangerous to fetal development.

Alcohol consumption while pregnant increases the risk of miscarriage and premature delivery. At birth these children may weigh and measure less, although sometimes this growth retardation manifests itself later.

In our environment, alcohol consumption during pregnancy is the first non-genetic cause of mental retardation, which, however, is entirely preventable.

In addition to this, babies can be born with altered facial features (small head, small upper jaw, small and slanted eyes with characteristic folds, etc.), problems and malformations in other parts of the body such as the heart (closure defects in the septa that communicate the different parts of the heart), the kidneys, the digestive tract, the extremities, etc. In addition, psychomotor retardation, from moderate to profound, may be added.

Later, during childhood, developmental and behavioral disturbances (hyperactivity, memory problems, language, coordination, social adaptation, etc.) may also appear.

What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

It is the medical term for the set of alterations that can characteristically affect babies whose mothers consumed alcohol during pregnancy.

In fact, this syndrome, strictly speaking, appears in the most severe cases, but there are many cases, the majority, in which only some of these manifestations appear in isolation and cannot even be identified at birth or in the first months of life, but are diagnosed in later stages of the child’s development, during childhood or adolescence.

This is why we speak of “fetal alcohol syndrome” in the first case, and of “disorders related to fetal alcohol syndrome” in the other cases.

Alcohol consumed by pregnant women passes directly to the baby, crossing the placental barrier. When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, within an hour she and her baby have the same blood alcohol concentration.

Which of the baby’s organs are most affected by alcohol consumption during pregnancy?

There is no part of the baby’s body that cannot be negatively affected by the mother’s alcohol consumption; however, the nervous system, specifically, the brain, is one of the organs most vulnerable to alcohol consumption during this stage.

This special vulnerability of the brain and the large number of functions it controls and in which it is involved, makes the manifestations of alcohol-related damage during pregnancy so varied in intensity and time, and may appear at birth or during childhood or adolescence.

In addition, depending on the time of pregnancy, various organs may be affected, depending on which of them is developing at that time.

Is there a relationship between the amount of alcohol consumed during pregnancy and the effect it has on the baby?

Drinking alcohol at any time during pregnancy can harm the fetus, although, in general, the first trimester of pregnancy is considered to be a period especially vulnerable to all toxic or harmful agents for the baby because most of the development of the baby’s organs takes place during this period.

There is no safe drinking limit, so the only safe alcohol consumption during pregnancy is zero consumption. Not drinking alcoholic beverages during pregnancy is the only guarantee not to increase the risk that every mother and her baby have of developing the effects of alcohol.

The more alcohol consumed, the greater the damage it can cause. The most severe manifestations of children affected by prenatal alcohol exposure occur in children of women who consume large amounts of alcohol on a regular basis.

However, occasional heavy drinking, such as binge drinking or binge drinking, also increases the likelihood that the baby’s development will be seriously affected. At present, scientific knowledge cannot guarantee that the consumption of small doses of alcohol during pregnancy is safe for the baby.

How does alcohol consumption affect women’s health?

There is proven scientific evidence that alcohol consumption is harmful to women’s health at lower levels than those that cause harm to men.

Even without taking into account the differences in body weight between men and women, since the lower, the body weight and the same amount of alcohol the greater the harm, alcohol reaches higher concentrations in the blood in women than in men, even though both ingest the same amount of alcohol.

This is due to a higher fat/water ratio in women, which makes it more difficult to dilute alcohol in the body, and also to the fact that women have lower levels of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, which plays a fundamental role in alcohol metabolism.

On the other hand, women are more prone to liver damage as a result of alcohol consumption. Thus, diseases such as hepatitis or alcoholic cirrhosis occur in women after a much shorter period of consumption than they do in men.

Alcohol is widely recognized as a carcinogenic agent by the scientific community, i.e. it is one factor, among many others, that increases the likelihood of developing various types of cancer.

Alcohol consumption also has effects on the reproductive function of women, delaying puberty, altering the menstrual cycle and decreasing fertility.

And during breastfeeding…

Sorry, abstinence does not end with childbirth. Just as during pregnancy, you pass on the nutrients you consume to your baby while breastfeeding. The medical community explains that there is no level of alcohol in breast milk that is considered safe for a baby.

Research suggests that breastfed babies who are exposed to one drink a day may have poor motor development and sleep disturbances.

Breastfeeding and drinking alcohol should not mix. If you decide to drink, avoid breastfeeding until the alcohol has disappeared from your blood. This usually takes two to three hours for 360 ml of beer (5% proof), 150 ml of wine (11% proof) or 44 ml of spirits (40% proof), for example. This varies depending on your body weight.

Expressing breast milk after drinking alcohol does not accelerate the elimination of alcohol in your blood. What you should do if you decide to drink alcohol is to express milk before drinking so that you have a stored supply to feed your baby the beneficial breast milk during the hours that alcohol is still in your blood.


Fetal alcohol syndrome is a disorder that occurs in people whose mothers drank alcohol during pregnancy. Symptoms may include growth problems, behavioral problems and learning difficulties. Because of the wide range of symptoms and their severity, diagnosis is often complicated.

The syndrome is usually detected during kindergarten or elementary school, when learning difficulties become evident. While there is no cure for fetal alcohol syndrome, early diagnosis and intensive support can alleviate some of the symptoms.

Without a diagnosis or sufficient support, people with FAS are more likely to suffer health and social disadvantages.

The most important measure to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome is not to consume alcohol during pregnancy.


Clarren, S. K., & Smith, D. W. (1978). The fetal alcohol syndrome. New England Journal of Medicine, 298(19), 1063-1067.

Jones, K. L., & Smith, D. W. (1975). The fetal alcohol syndrome. Teratology, 12(1), 1-10.

Streissguth, A. P. (1997). Fetal alcohol syndrome: A guide for families and communities. Paul H Brookes Publishing.