The Signs and Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

This is the first in a two-part blog series on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. To read part one on the prevention of and signs and symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome please continue reading. Part two will be published Friday, December 2, and will focus on parenting a child with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a daylong seminar on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) put on by the Erie County Council for the Prevention of Alcohol and Substance Abuse(ECCPASA).  Diane Malbin, MSW, was the head speaker at the conference.

Adoption STAR asks all prospective adoptive clients what health risks they are comfortable considering within child referrals and encourages everyone to receive education on many topics that would place a child at-risk for special needs.  Adoption STAR wants all prospective adoptive parents to additionally do their homework on many “at-risk” issues.

This post is meant to continue ones education on an important topic and will begin to introduce some things to look for and what to possibly expect when a child is born with or at-risk for FAS.

Alcohol is an accepted drug in American society, so often times it surprises people when they learn how much damage it can cause during pregnancy. According to Malbin, “Of all of the drugs studied today, alcohol (during pregnancy) causes more effects and is the leading cause of damage to unborn children.” Studies have also suggested that consuming alcohol early in pregnancy will cause more damage then consuming alcohol later in the pregnancy.

One of the key points at the conference was the fact that FAS was a preventable disease. While not every drink will cause FAS, there is no specific amount of alcohol known to cause it, which is why it is recommended to stay away from alcohol completely during pregnancy.

Malbin also stressed the importance for physicians and medical professionals to speak candidly with women about alcohol during pregnancy, even if it is awkward. Not only will this lead to further prevention of FAS, but it can also lead to earlier identification.

As you can see in the diagram below, one sign that your child may have FAS is the presence of a smooth Philtrum (which is the crevasse between your nose and your upper lip). Another physical sign may be a thin upper lip, or a short distance between the innermost corner of the eye and the outermost corner of the eye. On the chart below, “1-2” show a “deep philtrum and a full upper lip,” “3” is an “average Philtrum and Upper Lip” and “4-5” show a “smooth Philtrum and thin upper lip.”

Fetal Alcohol Syndrom Lip-Philthrum Guide

While these are physical signs that your child may have been born with FAS, the existence of all three signs will only occur if a pregnant woman was drinking between days 18-21 of gestation, otherwise your child only may have two, one, or even none of these physical attributes. That is why Malbin classified FAS as “an invisible physical disability.”

There are also behavioral and cognitive challenges associated with FAS. Some of these challenges can involve language and communication, processing pace (how fast the brain works), learning and memory, abstract thinking and executive functioning (organization, problem solving, multi-tasking, etc.). Other symptoms or challenges associated with FAS are “uneven development” between a child’s developmental age and chronological age, sensory system problems or over stimulation and nutrition issues, such as abhorrence to certain textures and smells.

While children born with FAS will most likely face certain challenges, they will also have many strengths. Malbin said that some of their primary behavior strengths might be: artistic, musical, mechanical, athletic or creative. Malbin also mentioned that children born with FAS will often have strong wills and be determined.

Malbin also said that children with FAS will learn better certain ways compared to other methods. Their learning strengths may be: relational (1:1), visual, auditory, hands-on and experiential (learn by doing.)

For more information on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome you can contact Adoption STAR by email at or by phone at 1-866-691-3300. If you are in Erie Country, you can also contact ECCPASA by email at or by phone at 716-831-9580.

Part two of our two-part series on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome will be published tomorrow (Friday, 12/2.) This post will focus on parenting a child with FAS.

Stay tuned to learn about an upcoming podcast on this very topic with ECCPASA Program Coordinator Helen Weinstein.