About fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can lead to a range of birth defects and health and development problems. These problems are called fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).

Our illustrated guide has everything you need to know about alcohol and pregnancy, plus suggestions for quitting alcohol while pregnant.

Causes of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy.

Alcohol passes through the placenta and enters the bloodstream of unborn babies. This can affect brain development in unborn babies. It can also have serious, lifelong consequences for children’s health and development.

There is no ‘safe’ level of drinking while pregnant. It’s best not to drink at all. Heavy binge-drinking puts unborn babies at most risk of FASD.

Women who are pregnant, or who could get pregnant, should not drink alcohol. Mothers who are breastfeeding should also not drink alcohol.

Not every pregnancy is planned, and many women drink alcohol before they realise they’re pregnant. If you find out you’re pregnant and know you’ve drunk alcohol – especially if you drank a lot in the early stages of pregnancy – it’s a good idea to talk with your GP.

Signs and symptoms of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)

Physical signs
The physical signs of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) vary, but many children with FASD have:

Thinking, learning and understanding signs
Children with FASD might have:

  • learning difficulties
  • intellectual disability
  • poor memory
  • difficulty communicating.

Behaviour signs
Children with FASD might:

  • be impulsive
  • have anxiety and depression
  • find it hard to organise themselves
  • seem to have the behaviour and emotions of younger children.

Diagnosis of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)

A paediatrician can diagnose fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) by looking for the signs above and using a special set of criteria.

The earlier a child gets a diagnosis of FASD, the earlier the child can get intervention to help him reach his potential. If you have any concerns about your child and FASD, it’s a good idea to speak with your GP.

Being told that your baby or child has FASD can be a big shock for you and your family. If you need information and support, a good place to start is NOFASD Australia.

Support and treatment for fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) can’t be cured. But children with FASD can get treatment to learn and develop skills and improve their quality of life.

Treatment depends on the difficulties a child with FASD has. For example, if a child has difficulties with speech and communication, speech therapy might help. If a child has learning and behaviour difficulties at school, there might be options for school disability support. Occupational therapy can help children with movement and daily care difficulties.

When children have FASD, a team of health professionals usually helps to support the whole family. In addition to your GP and paediatrician, this team might include the following:

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) might support your child with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), as well as you and your family. Our guide has answers to your questions about the NDIS.