Skip to content

Key resources

  • Bibliography
    Bibliography
  • Health promotion
    Health promotion
  • Health practice
    Health practice
  • Yarning places
    Yarning places
  • Programs
    Programs
  • Organisations
    Organisations
  • Conferences
    Conferences
  • Courses
    Courses
  • Funding
    Funding
  • Glossary
    Glossary
AOD workers' portal
 
Print this page Print

Key facts

What is Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD)?

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) is a general term used to describe the range of mental and physical effects on the developing unborn baby that are caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy. These effects range from brain damage and poor growth to birth defects and learning problems. FASD is not a diagnosis, but represents disorders that include: Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS); Partial Fetal alcohol syndrome (PFAS) and Neurodevelopmental disorder–alcohol exposed (ND-AE) [1, 2].

Babies who have been exposed to alcohol during pregnancy may show:

Children who have been exposed to alcohol during pregnancy may develop more slowly and have difficulty learning and controlling their behaviour [2]. The effects may include:

Fetal alcohol syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) refers to the distinctive facial features, delay in growth and central nervous system abnormalities in children who have been affected by exposure to alcohol in pregnancy [2]. The facial features unique to FAS include:

These facial features become less visible as the child becomes older.


Facial features
Source: Best Start: Ontario’s maternal, newborn and early child development resource centre, 2005 [4].

Partial Fetal alcohol syndrome (PFAS)

Partial Fetal alcohol syndrome (PFAS) is where a child has some but not all the facial features of FAS.

Neurodevelopmental Disorder-Alcohol Exposed (ND-AE)

Neurodevelopmental disorder –alcohol exposed (ND-AE) refers to problems with brain development as well as the learning and behavioural difficulties in children who have been exposed to alcohol during pregnancy. Individuals with ND-AE do not necessarily have the facial characteristics or poor growth seen with FAS and PFAS [1].

Diagnosis of conditions under FASD

There is no single internationally accepted classification system for FASD. Assessment criteria include confirmation of alcohol exposure during pregnancy as well the need to assess characteristics of growth, facial features and neurological structure and function [5]. FASD may be diagnosed at birth, but in many cases, the diagnosis occurs later, when the child is having problems with learning or behaviour [6].

In Australia a tool for the diagnosis of FASD is being finalised and initial services are being developed to provide families with early diagnosis and intervention for children with FASD. Early diagnosis improves outcomes and quality of life for individuals with FASD and their families [1, 7].

How does alcohol harm the unborn baby?

Alcohol passes from the mother to the unborn baby through the bloodstream. The unborn baby will receive the same concentration of alcohol in the bloodstream as the mother. The baby is not able to process alcohol the way the mother can and the alcohol damages the developing body and brain [2, 8].

Each stage of pregnancy poses risks for different parts of the unborn baby’s developing body, cells and organs. The first three months of pregnancy, when major organs are being formed, is a sensitive time. Throughout the pregnancy the developing brain is particularly vulnerable to alcohol exposure [9].

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), is associated with drinking a lot of alcohol often (including binge drinking) while pregnant. However lower levels of drinking have also been linked with harm to the unborn baby. This means that both ‘how often’ and ‘the amount’ of alcohol consumed are relevant to the risk of FASD [5].
Given the uncertainty, the Australian alcohol guidelines advise that the safest choice is not to drink alcohol when pregnant, planning a pregnancy or breastfeeding [10].

Alcohol and breast feeding

Alcohol passes from the mother’s bloodstream into the breast milk [2, 10].The amount of alcohol in breast milk is similar to the levels in the mother’s blood. This can affect the baby’s feeding and sleeping patterns. Alcohol can also affect the mother by making less milk and/or affecting the flow of milk [2, 10].

Effects on the baby include [2]:

The Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol state that ‘breastfeeding mothers should be advised that not drinking is the safest option.’ [10, p80].

Is there treatment for FASD?

The effects of FASD are life-long. However, there are a range of strategies which help to improve the long term outcomes for individuals and families affected by FASD [11].

These include:

Children with FASD appear to respond positively to the following behaviour strategies [12]:

Supporting women with alcohol dependency with health services that address their substance use problems and promote the health and wellbeing of the mother and child is beneficial for the family.  Providing support may also prevent further children being born with FASD [13].

How can you prevent FASD?

FASD can be prevented by not drinking alcohol during pregnancy. There is no safe time to have alcohol during pregnancy [10]. For women who are planning to have a baby, are pregnant or breast feeding, the safest choice is not to drink alcohol.

Early identification of women who drink alcohol by health workers, GPs, and maternity services can reduce the risks of FASD [13]. Routine screening of all women of child bearing age can be done using assessment tools such as Audit-C. This assists in establishing levels of drinking and creates opportunities to provide information, brief intervention or referral to support services. If a woman has been drinking while pregnant, it is never too late to reduce harm to the baby by stopping drinking [2]. 

The role of men in supporting women who are pregnant or breastfeeding to not drink alcohol during pregnancy and breastfeeding is also important [5].

At a community level, FASD can be prevented by promoting awareness of the harmful effects of drinking alcohol while pregnant, reducing unplanned pregnancies through the use of contraception and reducing the ready availability of alcohol [13].

How common is FASD in Australia?

The prevalence of FASD in Australia is difficult to determine due to [14]:

Various studies using data from states and territories have estimated rates at 0.01 to 1.7 per 1000 births in the total population. However given the limitations already outlined in collecting information on FASD, it is generally accepted that these figures are likely to underestimate the prevalence of FASD in Australia [14].

Internationally, estimates of FASD range from 2.0 to 7.0 per 1000 in mainstream populations, with prevalence higher in vulnerable populations [15].

What is known about FASD in Indigenous communities?

FASD is not unique to Indigenous communities. The potential risks of drinking while pregnant are an issue for all Australians.  Overall, fewer Indigenous women drink than non-Indigenous women (71% compared with 77% respectively) [16]. However, Indigenous women of child bearing age (18-44 years) are less likely to drink at low risk levels than non-Indigenous women of child bearing age (28.4% compared with 42%), and more likely to  drink at risky/high risk levels (11.6% compared with 9.5%) [16]. Analysis of information from the 2008 NATSISS on alcohol consumption during pregnancy found that 80% of mothers of Indigenous children aged 0-3 years did not drink during pregnancy,16% drank less, and 3.3% drank more or the same amount of alcohol during their pregnancy [17].

Various studies using data from states and territories have estimated rates of FASD at 0.15 to 4.70 per 1000 births for the Indigenous population [14]. A first report on FAS based on research conducted in Western Australia indicated a rate of 2.76 per 1000 for Indigenous children [14]. A subsequent study of the prevalence of FAS in the Northern Territory estimated rates to be between 1.9 and 4.7 per 1000 live births [18].These figures are likely to underestimate prevalence given the limitations in data collection and lack of recognition for FASD in Australia.

What is being done about FASD?

A number of projects are being conducted to find out more about FASD and to address alcohol use during pregnancy in Indigenous communities. These include:

The Australian Government responded to the parliamentary Inquiry into FASD in 2012 with a proposed action plan over four years [7, 24]. The plan supports action on:

Conclusion

Accurate data on the prevalence of FASD is needed to inform prevention strategies and services. At present there is no requirement to count or report FASD nationally and alcohol use in pregnancy is not routinely screened for [14].

The development of nationally agreed guidelines for the diagnosis of FASD will assist in identifying FASD and providing early management and advice to families. Further work is needed to provide specific support services for FASD and to increase the capacity of health and other services to respond to families affected by FASD [5].

The example of Marulu: the Lililwan project has shown that FASD prevention strategies in Indigenous communities are effective when driven by community led initiatives.

References

  1. Watkins RE, Elliott EJ, Wilkins A, Mutch RC, Fitzpatrick JP, Payne JM, O'Leary CM, Jones HM, Latimer J, Hayes L, Halliday J, D'Antoine H, Miers S, Russell E, Burns L, McKenzie A, Peadon E, Carter M, Bower C (2013) Recommendations from a consensus development workshop on the diagnosis of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders in Australia. BMC Pediatrics;13. Retrieved 2 October 2013 from http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/1471-2431-13-156
  2. Telethon Institute for Child Health Research (2009) Alcohol and pregnancy and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder: a resource for health professionals. Perth: Telethon Institute for Child Health Research
  3. Telethon Institute for Child Health Research (2014) Understanding FASD - What is FASD? Retrieved 2014 from http://alcoholpregnancy.childhealthresearch.org.au/understanding-fasd/what-is-fasd.aspx
  4. Best start: Ontario’s maternal naecdrc (2005) Participant handbook: supporting change: preventing and addressing alcohol use in pregnancy. Ontario: Best start
  5. National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee (2012) Addressing Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder in Australia. Canberra: National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee
  6. National Organisation for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (2013) What is FASD?Retrieved 2013 from http://www.nofasd.org.au/resources/what-is-fasd-1
  7. Department of Health and Ageing (2013) Responding to the impact of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders in Australia: a Commonwealth action plan. Canberra: Department of Health and Ageing
  8. National Organisation for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Related Disorders (2011) Alcohol and pregnancy: "be kind to me stay alcohol free". Normanville, SA: National Organisation for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Related Disorders
  9. National Organisation for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Related Disorders (2011) Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder: the preventable disability. Normanville, SA: National Organisation for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Related Disorders
  10. National Health and Medical Research Council (2009) Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council
  11. Therapeutic Guidelines Limited (2012) Fetal alcohol syndrome. Management guidelines : developmental disability. Version 3 ed. Victoria: Therapeutic Guidelines Limited:295-300
  12. Western Australian Department for Communities (2010) Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD): information for people working with children and families. Perth, WA: Western Australian Department for Communities
  13. Western Australian Department of Health (2010) Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder model of care. Perth, WA: Health Networks, Western Australian Department of Health
  14. Burns L, Breen C, Bower C, O' Leary C, Elliott EJ (2013) Counting fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in Australia: the evidence and the challenges. Drug and Alcohol Review;32(5):461–467
  15. May PA, Gossage JP, Kalberg WO, Robinson LK, Buckley D, Manning M, Hoyme HE (2009) Prevalence and epidemiologic characteristics of FASD from various research methods with an emphasis on recent in-school studies. Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews;15(3):176-192
  16. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2013) Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health survey: first results, Australia, 2012-13. (ABS Catalogue no. 4727.0.55.001) Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics
  17. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2013) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health performance framework 2012: detailed analyses. (AIHW Cat. no. IHW 94) Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare
  18. Harris KR, Bucens IK (2003) Prevalence of fetal alcohol syndrome in the Top End of the Northern Territory. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health;39(5):528-533
  19. Fitzpatrick JP, Latimer J, Ferreira M, Martiniuk ALC, Peadon E, Carter M, Oscar J, Carter E, Kefford M, Shandley R, Yungabun H, Elliott EJ (2013) Development of a reliable questionnaire to assist in the diagnosis of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). BMC Pediatrics;13. Retrieved 7 March 2013 from http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/1471-2431-13-33
  20. Bridge P (2011) Ord Valley Aboriginal Health Service's fetal alcohol spectrum disorders program: big steps, solid outcome. Australian Indigenous HealthBulletin;11(4):1-8
  21. Western Australian Drug and Alcohol Office (2011) Strong spirit strong future. Perth, WA: Western Australian Drug and Alcohol Office
  22. NSW Ministry of Health (2012) Stay strong and healthy: pregnancy resources for Aboriginal women. Sydney: NSW Ministry of Health
  23. Gibson A, O'Loughlin B, Burke C, Moses S (2013) Barkly fights FASD. Tennant Creek, NT: Anyinginyi Health Aboriginal Corporation and Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education
  24. House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs (2012) FASD: the hidden harm: Inquiry into the prevention, diagnosis and management of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Canberra: Parliament of Australia
 

Table of Contents

collapseCollapse
expand Expand
    Last updated: 9 July 2014
     
    Return to top
    spacing
    general box

    Contribute

    Share your information » Give us feedback »
    spacing
     
    spacing
     


    Australia's National Research Centre on AOD Workforce Development National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre National Drug Research Institute