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Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD)

What are fetal alcohol spectrum disorders?

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, or FASDs, refer to a group of disorders on a spectrum that occur when an individual drinks alcohol during pregnancy.  Any amount or type of alcohol use is unsafe during pregnancy. The effects of alcohol exposure can last a lifetime. A child’s behavior, learning ability, physical appearance and organ function may be affected. FASDs are completely preventable and are estimated to affect about 1 in 20 school children in the United States.

What are the different types of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders?

  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS): FAS is the least diagnosed type of FASD. An infant born with FAS may have a small head, weigh less than other babies, and have distinctive facial features such as a smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip.
  • Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS): Does not meet the full diagnostic criteria for FAS but has a history of prenatal alcohol exposure and some of the facial abnormalities, as well as a growth problem or central nervous system abnormalities.
  • Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND): This is the most common type of FASD. An individual with ARND might have intellectual disabilities and problems with behavior regulation, memory, and learning. They might do poorly in school and have difficulty making choices and understanding consequences.
  • Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD): An individual with ARBD might have problems with the heart, kidneys, bones, vision, or hearing. They might also have a compromised immune system.
  • Neurobehavioral Disorder Associated with Prenatal Alcohol Exposure (ND-PAE): An individual with ND-PAE will have problems with thinking and memory, behavior, and trouble with day-to-day living, which can include problems with bathing, dressing for the weather and socializing.

Table 1- Information Courtesy of the CDC:

Healthy Children:


Symptoms may appear differently as an individual ages and can vary from person to person. These symptoms may also appear in other disorders.


  • low birth weight
  • sensitivity to light, noise, and touch
  • irritability
  • unable to suck effectively
  • slow to develop
  • ear infections
  • poor sleep/wake cycles


  • poor memory
  • hyperactivity
  • no fear
  • no sense of boundaries
  • need for lots of physical contact

School-Age Children:

  • easily distracted
  • short attention span
  • poor coordination
  • trouble with large and fine motor skills
  • need lots of one-on-one attention

Older Children:

  • low self-esteem
  • trouble keeping up in school
  • poor impulse control
  • difficulty with public versus private environments
  • must be reminded of daily tasks

Information Courtesy of Indiana Alliance on Prenatal Substance Exposure:


To diagnose FASD, a team of healthcare professionals work together to carefully evaluate the child’s prenatal alcohol history, physical symptoms and neurodevelopmental functions. Once the assessment is complete, the child may be diagnosed with one or more types of FASD.

Diagnosis Criteria for All Types of FASD:

  • Alcohol exposure while in the womb
  • Central nervous system problems (small head, difficulty with attention, lack of coordination).

Diagnosis Criteria for FAS and pFAS Only:

  • Abnormal facial features (smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip)
  • Below average weight and/or height


There is no cure for FASD; however, early individual-specific intervention services (birth to age 3) can improve a child’s developmental outcome. Person specific interventions can be utilized to improve outcomes. Talk to your child’s healthcare provider for more information about diagnosis and treatment.

Photo courtesy of the CDC

Meet Brenna, an Indiana resident living with an FASD and spreading awareness within her community. Click here to read more of Brenna’s story.

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Page last revised 3/29/2022 by DWard