Alcoholism and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

By on May 11, 2021

Substance use disorders can be very destructive not just for the person using drugs, but also for the people around them. Learning about a loved one’s addiction can be overwhelming and put a strain on the relationship. In other cases, substance abuse can cause the individual to be a danger to themselves and others. This is especially true in the case of alcoholism and pregnant women, and their unborn children.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that up to 30% of women drink during pregnancy. A drink a day is generally considered as moderate consumption, but women are often advised to avoid alcohol completely when they are pregnant or might be pregnant. Even a small amount of alcohol poses many risks for the unborn baby, including a host of conditions that are collectively called fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).

What Is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?

While in the womb, babies get sustenance from their mothers. The air she breathes and the food she eats are passed on to the fetus through the placenta. This process is not selective, so if she consumes any amount of alcohol, it gets passed on to the baby as well. Because this prenatal exposure happens during the crucial stages of development, it can cause abnormalities or delays in growth. These resulting conditions are collectively known as FASD because they span a wide range of presentations, including physical defects and neurological problems.

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The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies (IOM) offers four diagnostic categories of FASDs:

  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) – The central nervous system is most affected, so a person with FAS may experience learning difficulties, speech problems, and impaired memory. They may also have minor facial abnormalities that result in the narrowing of the eye openings and smoothening of the philtrum.
  • Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS) – A person with pFAS only presents some of the symptoms associated with FAS.
  • Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD) – This condition commonly occurs with FAS and creates physical malformations in the heart, lungs, or even bones. A person with ARBD may also experience difficulties with sight and hearing.
  • Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND) – The effect is a bit similar to FAS because it also affects the central nervous system, but it presents itself as intellectual disabilities. A person with ARND may have learning problems due to poor memory and the inability to concentrate. They may also have behavioral problems because of cognitive impairment and poor impulse control.

How Is It Treated?

FASDs are a life-long condition; there are no known cures. However, early interventions that focus on aiding learning and correcting behavior show promise for helping people with FASDs.

While treatment for these conditions is limited, FASDs are avoidable. Pregnant women should avoid consuming alcohol or quit as soon as possible.

What About Alcoholism During Pregnancy?

In some cases, it may be difficult for the mother to stop drinking alcohol even when the risks are apparent. They may be suffering from alcoholism or an addiction to alcohol, which is a disease that requires specialized treatment. It is best to seek help from a Tampa drug rehab or similar facility as suddenly stopping alcohol consumption can also have negative effects on the body in the form of withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms may be severe enough to endanger both the mother and child, so a medically assisted detox treatment is a safer option.

Some signs of possible alcohol addiction include:

  • Making excuses to consume alcohol or saying that a tiny amount won’t hurt the baby
  • Skipping prenatal checkups despite understanding their importance
  • Avoiding social interactions with friends and family
  • Behaving differently or reacting with aggression
  • Neglecting responsibilities

It is best to treat substance use disorders as soon as they are diagnosed. It can be especially risky for women as they may not immediately know about their pregnancy and continue drinking behaviors that expose the fetus to alcohol in the first trimester.

How Is Alcoholism Treated in Pregnant Women?

It is never too late to seek help for alcohol addiction. The baby’s brain develops throughout the pregnancy, so quitting may still help to minimize the effects of alcohol on their development. However, doctors cannot conclusively diagnose fetal alcohol spectrum disorders until after the baby is born.

When the woman is ready to get treatment, she can go to a drug rehab center with specialized programs for treating addiction during pregnancy. Once there, her condition will be assessed and she will have to undergo detoxification to remove all traces of alcohol from her system. The treatment team will monitor the entire process to ensure that both she and the baby stay safe and healthy.

Therapy is also offered as part of the treatment. This will help the patient to understand the causes of her substance abuse and how to cope with stress better. She may also be encouraged to join prenatal classes to support a healthy pregnancy and prepare for childbirth and rearing.

Recovering from alcoholism can be a little more complicated when pregnancy is involved, but the benefits for both the mother and child are clear. Sobriety allows the mother to stay healthy and eliminates the risk of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

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Alcoholism and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder