FASD - Liver Foundation
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What is FASD?


Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) are a group of conditions that can occur in a  person whose mother drank alcohol during her pregnancy.


Alcohol is a teratogen – it can pass from the mothers’ bloodstream, cross the placenta, and enter the baby’s bloodstream. Alcohol lasts longer in the baby’s bloodstream because a baby’s liver metabolises (breaks down) alcohol very slowly. This means that alcohol can interfere with the normal development of the fetus and affect cells including brain cells leading to cognitive impairment..


The characteristic effects of FASD include physical, developmental and neurobehavioural abnormalities. FASD conditions can range from mild to severe depending on the individual. The most severe form of FASD is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) which includes facial feature abnormalities as well as the neurobehavioural symptoms.


A person with FASD may have:


  • Abnormal facial features such as a smooth philtrum (flattened narrow groove between nose and upper lip), a flat mid face, a short nose, or a short chin
  • Small head size
  • Shorter than average height
  • Learning difficulties
  • Hyperactive behaviour
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Poor memory
  • Learning difficulties
  • A low IQ or intellectual disability
  • Speech or language problems
  • Problems at school, particularly with math
  • Difficulty relating actions to consequences
  • Poor judgement and reasoning
  • Problems with major organs such as the heart or kidneys


FASD is often called the ‘invisible disability’. Symptoms of FASD are seldom apparent at birth, excluding the facial feature abnormalities that present with FAS. Therefore, it is often not until school age that learning difficulties and problems with social behaviours begin to be noticed. Even then, the problems are often overlooked, ignored, attributed to other conditions or blamed on poor parenting or environment. Paradoxically, the misunderstanding of the unrecognised brain impairment and the associated primary symptoms often leads to the development of secondary behaviours and the stereotypical labelling of that individual.

Not having a diagnosis often causes misunderstandings and confusion and mean that the person misses out on much needed assistance to help them manage their condition. In addition, the consequences of FASD increase with adulthood as there is less social tolerance for the behaviour.


There is no cure for FASD and its effects last a lifetime, however it is preventable. Any amount of alcohol during pregnancy can harm the growing baby. What symptoms occur and how severe they are depend on how much alcohol the mother drank, how often they drank, and at what stage of the pregnancy alcohol was consumed. Other factors such as the age and health of the mother (e.g. if she also smokes) and environmental factors (e.g. stress due to poverty or abuse) can also add to the amount of harm to the developing baby.


The safest course of action is always to avoid drinking any alcohol whilst you are pregnant, as well as if you are trying to get pregnant or when you are breastfeeding.


There are lots of different ways you can stay away from alcohol, and lots of different people who can help when you are struggling. Take a look through the other pages on this website for some ideas.

References and further reading:


 Australian alcohol guidelines