If you drink during pregnancy, the alcohol in your bloodstream can pass to the developing child and have a number of negative effects.

If a child is exposed to alcohol as it develops in the womb, they may go on to experience lifelong problems with movement, learning, emotional development and communication skills. It also has an impact on different parts of the body, including muscles, bones and organs, including the kidneys and heart. It can also affect the facial features, causing what is sometimes known as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Face and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Eyes.


What is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, or FASD, sometimes spelt Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, is a group of lifelong conditions that can affect a child as they grow if they are exposed to alcohol in the womb.

You might also have heard of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). In some places, particularly the US, this is sometimes used interchangeably with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. But it only correctly applies to a particular condition which must include all of the following clinical features:

  • Prenatal and/or postnatal growth retardation
  • Facial abnormalities
  • Central nervous system dysfunction
  • Neurobehavioural disabilities.
  • FAS is considered to be a broader diagnosis that includes people with FAS and others with a wide range of symptoms.

In the UK, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is the preferred term.

The National Organisation for FASD says: “FASD is a spectrum. Each person with FASD is affected differently. While more than 400 conditions can co-occur, FASD is at its core a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition. All people with FASD have many strengths. Early diagnosis and appropriate support are essential, especially for executive functioning.”


Signs and Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

FASD is surprisingly common. A study of nearly 13,500 children born in the early 1990s found that up to 17% of UK children could have symptoms consistent with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Some countries, including the US, Canada and Italy, had used in-school screening and concluded that up to 10% of children were affected, with rates as high as 30% among children in care. While advice on drinking during pregnancy has changed since the 1990s, the rates of drinking in the UK remain high, and researchers said that FASD is likely to remain a significant public health concern in the UK.

Despite the relatively common prevalence of FASD, it is often missed or misdiagnosed. It is sometimes considered to be a ‘hidden disability’ because most people with the disorder do not show physical abnormalities.

Some less obviously visible symptoms include:

  • Brain structure and neurological differences.
  • Difficulty with attention and concentration
  • Hyperactivity
  • Academic difficulties
  • Difficulty with speech and language
  • Emotional regulation difficulties
  • Difficulty making or sustaining friendships
  • Sensory impairments or sensitivities, including problems with the eyes and vision
  • Oppositional or defensive when requests are made

People with fetal alcohol syndrome and some of the more serious conditions within the umbrella term of FASD can also exhibit more visible physical symptoms, however.

These can include:

  • Abnormal facial features
  • Low birth weight and size
  • Lower weight and height after birth
  • Deformities of joints, limbs and fingers
  • Small head size

Some of the facial fetal alcohol syndrome symptoms can include:

  • Issues with the eyes, including small eye openings and other issues
  • A smooth area between the nose and above the upper lip (philtrum)
  • Thin upper lip
  • Flattened bridge of the nose

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Eyes - An illustration of a child with FAS

How to Spot Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Eyes

Some of the issues affecting the eyes are sometimes referred to as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Eyes or FASD Eyes.

There may be physical abnormalities involving the eyes, and there may also be a number of issues involving sight and vision. Some people may be near- or far-sighted and visual acuity – the ability to see detail – may be reduced in more than half of children with FAS. Abnormal or incomplete development of the eye can result in other issues that affect vision. The optic nerve may be small or abnormally developed, for example, which can cause an impairment of vision.

Although it is rarer, the cornea (the clear surface of the eye) and iris (the coloured part of the eye) can sometimes develop malformations that severely limit vision. Some people with FAS may develop cataracts (a clouding of the lens) and nystagmus (involuntary rapid movements of the eye). Strabismus may also be present in 25 to 50% of children with FAS. This is a misalignment of the eyes which may also be commonly known as a squint, eye turn or crossed eyes.

FAS and FASD can also affect the eyelids in a number of ways, although these do not always affect vision. One relatively common feature is short palpebral fissures (or smaller eyelid openings). This can also make it appear that the eyes are spaced more widely apart than they actually are.

Telecanthus is a widened distance between the inner corners of the eyes, and people with FAS may also experience Prominent Epicanthal folds – a larger than normal fold of skin near the inner corner of the eye. As well as epicanthic folds, FAS can cause ptosis or drooping eyelids.


What Causes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Eyes?

Ethanol, the type of alcohol found in alcoholic drinks, is known to be a teratogen. This is the name for a substance that can cause abnormalities following foetal exposure during pregnancy. The alcohol passes from the mother’s bloodstream through the placenta and can stay in the developing baby for a long time. It can damage their brain and body and stop them from developing normally in the womb.

The risk of FASD rises the more you drink, but there is no proven safe level of alcohol during pregnancy. The only sure way to avoid FASD is not to drink at all if you are pregnant or trying for a baby.

John Gillen - Author - Last updated: February 23, 2024

John is one UK’s leading professionals in the addiction recovery industry. Pioneering new treatment techniques such as NAD+ and ongoing research into new therapy techniques such as systematic laser therapy, John is committed to providing the very best treatment for people throughout the UK and Europe. During his extremely busy schedule, John likes to regularly update our blog section with the latest news and trends in the industry to keep visitors to our site as well informed as possible on everything related to addiction treatment.