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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy. For both the public and professionals, there is some uncertainty about FAS. Here you can find the facts.

- One glass of alcohol already affects the fetus

Research shows that even small amounts of alcohol consumption during pregnancy can have several harmful effects for a fetus. A single consumption of one or two glasses of alcohol already causes a temporary suppression of breathing movements, which can last for two hours. Also, the quality of sleep of the fetus is negatively affected.

Besides this, research has shown that a fetus is affected by the consumed alcohol even longer than the mother. Because the fetus has less capacity to break down the alcohol, it takes longer to process the alcohol, compared to the mother. Because the process of breaking down the alcohol takes longer, a large part of the alcohol is excreted in the amniotic fluid. After this, the fetus drinks the amniotic fluid, which causes the alcohol to stay in the foetal system. In short: one glass of alcohol already negatively affects the fetus. – Gezondheidsraad

- Also in the first weeks of pregnancy, alcohol causes damage to the fetus

There is a widespread and dangerous misconception that a woman can safely drink alcohol in the first weeks of pregnancy because the placenta is not fully created yet. However, immediately after consumption, alcohol is absorbed by the bodily fluids and not only by the blood. In this way, alcohol also ends up in the amniotic fluid. Also the liquid surrounding the fetus in the yolk sac causes the baby to absorb alcohol. These facts show that drinking alcohol during the first weeks of pregnancy is harmful for the child. – Inge van Balkom, founder FAS-poli

The fetus is sensitive to alcohol during the whole pregnancy. Several tissues are sensitive to damage in different periods, and in this way also to alcohol damage. Especially in the first two weeks of pregnancy, there is a chance of miscarriage caused by alcohol consumption. Another example is that the central nervous system, brain and vertebra are most sensitive from week three of the pregnancy. Also the heart, teeth, eyes and ears are extra sensitive to damage by alcohol consumption in specific periods of the pregnancy. – Rudi Kohl, paediatrician and FAS-specialist

- Also a small amount of alcohol can damage the unborn child

Nowadays, we know that the differences per person in sensitivity to alcohol is caused by a genetic predisposition. For a woman without genetic predisposition, one glass of wine may not cause much harm. However, for a woman that does have genetic predisposition, that one glass can be enough to cause harm to the unborn child. – Rudi Kohl, paediatrician and FAS-specialist

- The larger the amount of alcohol consumed at once, the more harm is caused

It is often thought that one glass of alcohol during pregnancy must be alright. But what is the definition of one glass of alcohol? One glass during the whole pregnancy or one glass each day? The earlier in the pregnancy alcohol is consumed, the more damage it causes. But mainly the amount of alcohol consumed at once affects the level of damage that is caused. If you drink a lot, it takes a longer period of time to break down the alcohol. The level at which alcohol is harmful to the fetus, depends on several factors. Still, there is no safe threshold known for drinking alcohol during pregnancy. – Inge van Balkom, founder FAS-poli

- The FAS diagnose depends on several factors

To be able to receive the diagnosis FAS or FASD, there must be a combination of four factors: growth retardation, physical features, behavioral abnormalities and prenatal alcohol exposure. If all four factors can be identified, the diagnosis will be FAS. In case only three factors can be verified, of which one must be prenatal alcohol exposure, it will be called the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). When there are no physical features, there will be no FAS diagnosis but FASD: the umbrella term for damage caused by alcohol. Children with FASD are mainly recognized by their distinctive behavior. – Rudi Kohl, paediatrician and FAS-specialist

Children with FAS often get misdiagnosed, mostly autism or ADHD. However, there are clear differences. Psychologist de Vries explains: “A child with FAS can one day be able to wash its own hair, and the next day be unable to remember what to do anymore. This is something you don’t see with autism and ADHD.
Jan de Vries, psychologist

- FAS-children can have specific distinctive physical features: bad teeth, a straight and narrow upper lip, a wide nose, hanging eyes, heart problems and deformation of bones.

Alcohol affects the frontal lobe. In the embryo, the frontal lobe is connected to the development of the middle part of the face. Simply put: because of FAS, the forebrain is smaller, which causes a different construction of the skull and makes the face look different. Most children with FAS have a smooth philtrum, the vertical groove between the nose and upper lip, and small eyelids. – Rudi Kohl, paediatrician and FAS-specialist.

- FAS-children often experience problems with emotions, behavior, concentration and memory.

In the womb and during the first years of life, the brain rapidly develops itself into a network of neurons. In the development of that enormous complex network, our personal characteristics, talents and disabilities are already, for a large part, defined at an early stage. If a woman consumes alcohol during pregnancy, the development of this network is disturbed, which can cause permanent disorders in brain functioning, like disorders in learning, memory and behavior.

A lot of FAS-children have a mental disorder because of damage in the frontal part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is not yet mature during puberty, which is why some expressions of FAS can seem like extreme symptoms of puberty. Besides this, FAS-children also have difficulty with forming right judgments of people, which causes them to easily get in contact with the wrong people. They behave impulsive, break the rules because they don’t understand them and can’t foresee the consequences. – Dick Swaab, brain researcher

- FAS cannot be cured, but can be fully prevented

One thing is certain: it is never proven that drinking alcohol during pregnancy is completely safe. Furthermore, the damage to the fetus caused by alcohol can never be undone. Already in 2005, the Gezondheidsraad stated that there is no safe threshold for alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Only by consuming no alcohol at all, risks on permanent damage are excluded. – Sjef Czyzewski, healthcare innovator


The FAS-project started as a journalistic initiative to raise awareness for FAS, but eventually developed into a big multimedia awareness campaign, showing the dangerous consequences of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.


                                 Het Witte Bos
                                  Schippersgracht 1011 TR
                                  Amsterdam, The Netherlands

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