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8 in 1,000 babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome is more common in the global population than previously thought, a new study has revealed.

The study, conducted at the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, found that nearly eight in every 1,000 babies are born with FASD.

That number was considerably higher among certain populations, including low-income communities, children who end up in care, are eventually incarcerated or are in psychiatric care homes.

The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, is one of few to estimate the total number of children in the world who are born with FASD. 

Authors noted that the findings highlight the need for more extensive research and a universal healthcare message to warn against exposure in expectant mothers.

A new study at the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, found eight in every 1,000 babies are born with fetal alcohol syndrome (stock image)


Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is an umbrella term describing the range of effects that can appear in a person whose mother drank alcohol while pregnant.

Alcohol can cause problems for a developing baby throughout pregnancy, including before a woman knows she’s pregnant.

The CDC has identified 0.2 to 1.5 infants with FAS for every 1,000 live births in certain areas of the United States.

However, few estimates for the full range of FASDs are available.

Based on community studies using physical examinations, experts estimate that the full range of FASDs in the US might number as high two to five per 100 school children (or between two and five percent of the population).

Conditions can range from mild to severe:

  • Abnormal facial features (such as a smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip)
  • Small head size
  • Shorter-than-average height
  • Low body weight
  • Poor coordination
  • Hyperactive behavior
  • Difficulty with attention
  • Poor memory
  • Difficulty in school (especially with math)
  • Learning disabilities
  • Speech and language delays
  • Intellectual disability or low IQ
  • Poor reasoning and judgment skills
  • Sleep and sucking problems as a baby
  • Vision or hearing problems
  • Problems with the heart, kidneys, or bones

There are no tests to diagnose FASD, and therefore doctors must rely on physical or mental signs.

Typically what is looked for are abnormal facial features; lower-than-average height, weight, or both; and central nervous system problems.

FASD is a lifelong disability for which there is no cure.

There are many types of treatment options, including medication to help with some symptoms, behavior and education therapy, parent training, and other alternative approaches.

Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can cause a wide range of adverse health effects. 

The effects of prenatal alcohol exposure can have lifelong implications, so fetal alcohol syndrome disorder is costly for society.  

‘Globally, FASD is a prevalent alcohol-related developmental disability that is largely preventable,’ the authors explained.  

Researchers at the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research in Toronto looked at 24 studies of 1,416 children and youth diagnosed with the disorder. Findings were published in JAMA Pediatrics. 

They found that: 

  • Nearly eight in 1,000 babies are born with FASD globally
  • Estimated one in 13 pregnant women who consume alcohol while pregnant will have a child with FASD
  • Prevalence ranges from five to 68 times higher in certain populations than in general
  • Of 187 countries analyzed South Africa had the highest prevalence with 111.1 babies in 1,000 born with FASD  

Fetal alcohol syndrome is often associated with alcoholic mothers who drink excessive amounts during pregnancy.

But in many instances mothers – who are only moderate drinkers in the first place – stop consuming alcohol as soon as they find out they are pregnant.

Few people – even doctors – fully understand the symptoms of FASD, but treating it is a round-the-clock occupation.

Most sufferers are first diagnosed with autism, ADHD or bipolar disorder because their behaviors are so similar.

Many – but not all – also have physical symptoms. They have a thin upper lip, smaller eyes, smaller heads, stunted growth, and a damaged central nervous system, which causes issues with learning, memory, attention span, communication, vision, or hearing.

These children are prone to pulling their hair out, breaking furniture, and covering their ears and rocking back and forth in reaction to loud noises.

It means they need incredibly strict routines to prevent violent outbursts.

With little public knowledge of how the disorder manifests itself, there are few resources to integrate children as they enter society. According to one report, 50 percent of individuals with FASD have a history of confinement in a jail, prison, residential drug treatment facility, or psychiatric hospital.  

‘The findings highlight the need to establish a universal public health message about the potential harm of prenatal alcohol exposure and a routine screening protocol,’ authors concluded. 

Brief interventions should be provided, where appropriate.’

They also noted that there were limitations to the study, particularly the wide range of differences within the studies analyzed, and that they all had different guidelines for diagnosis.