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How Does Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Affect Babies?

According to Affinity Health, a leading provider of high-quality health cover, South Africa has the highest prevalence of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) globally.


What is Foetal Alcohol Syndrome?

FASD is a collection of physical, behavioural, and learning disorders that can arise in individuals exposed to alcohol during pregnancy. According to research, there is no safe amount of alcohol and no safe period to consume during pregnancy that will not result in FASD. Therefore, drinking any amount of alcohol during pregnancy poses a risk to the foetus.


Globally, 1 in 13 births exposed to alcohol during pregnancy result in FASD, with a reported frequency of eight per 1 000 children and adolescents in the general population in 2017. The nationwide prevalence of FASD in South Africa ranges from 29 to 290 per 1 000 live births, the highest rate in the world.


A recently published study assessed the frequency in the Western Cape Province to be between 196 and 276 children per 1 000, the highest prevalence among South African provinces.

How Does Alcohol Consumption During Pregnancy Affect a Growing Baby?

When alcohol enters the circulation of a pregnant woman, it is transported straight to the developing tissues of the foetus via the placental tissue that separates the mother’s and baby’s blood systems. That implies that when a pregnant woman consumes alcohol, so does the foetus.


The alcohol is completely absorbed by the foetus and causes irreparable brain damage. This brain injury eventually leads to severe behavioural abnormalities. The adverse effects of alcohol can cause harm to the foetus at any time of pregnancy; they are not limited to a single stage.


Learn More: The Importance of Early Monitoring During Pregnancy

Signs and Symptoms of FASD in Babies

Some children experience the symptoms of FASD to a far greater degree than others.


The signs and symptoms of foetal alcohol syndrome may include any combination of physical deformities, intellectual or cognitive impairments, and difficulties with daily functioning and coping.

Babies born with FASD may present with the following symptoms: 
  • Distinctive facial characteristics, including small eyes, an unusually thin upper lip, a short, upturned nose, and a smooth skin surface between the nose and the top lip
  • Disfigurements of the joints, limbs, and fingers Low body weight
  • Short height
  • Sleep and sucking difficulties
  • Small head size
  • Vision or hearing problems
  • Disorders of the heart, kidneys, and bones
As a baby with FASD grows, they may exhibit the following symptoms:
  • Poor coordination
  • Hyperactive conduct
  • Attentional difficulties
  • Poor memory
  • Academic challenges (especially with math)
  • Learning disabilities
  • Language and speech delays
  • Mental retardation or a low IQ
  • Poor reasoning and judgement skills

If you suspect that your baby has FASD, consult your doctor immediately. Learning difficulties and behavioural disorders may be alleviated by early diagnosis.


“Because early detection may lower the risk of long-term complications for children with foetal alcohol syndrome, inform your child’s doctor if you consumed alcohol during pregnancy. Do not wait until problems occur before getting assistance,” says Murray Hewlett, CEO of Affinity Health. Murray launched Affinity Health in 2011. His vision is to make South Africans healthier and enhance the quality of their lives.


“If you have adopted or fostered a child, you may not know if the biological mother drank alcohol during pregnancy, and it may not occur to you that your child may have foetal alcohol syndrome. However, if your child has learning and behaviour issues, consult with their physician to determine the underlying cause.”

Where to get help

If you suspect your child may have FASD, speak to your family health care provider, who may refer your child to a specialist knowledgeable about FASDs, such as a developmental paediatrician, child psychologist, or clinical geneticist.


There are clinics in some places whose personnel are specially trained to diagnose and treat children with FASDs.


If you’re pregnant and battling sobriety, remember that recovery is in reach with the proper treatment and support.


If you or someone you know needs assistance with alcoholism, speak with your healthcare physician for a list of experts within your area that can assist, or contact the following organisations for help:

About Affinity Health

Affinity Health is the leading provider of affordable medical insurance in South Africa. Members enjoy access to a network of healthcare providers. We have designed healthcare products to protect you and your family when it matters the most. We strive to give our clients peace of mind and the highest standard of service. For more information, follow us on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

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