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fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs)

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FASDs describe a collection of birth anomalies, developmental disabilities, neurocognitive issues, and behavioral problems associated with alcohol exposure in the womb. FASDs can vary widely in outcomes and severity. They are often put in three categories

The first category includes alcohol-related congenital disorders like heart problems or low vision. Officially the category is called “alcohol-related birth defects” (ARBDs). However, the term “birth defects” is highly stigmatizing. More specific language could be something like “low vision due to prenatal alcohol exposure.” 

The second category focuses on behavioral issues. Neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (ND-PAE) involves problems with thinking, memory, behavior, and daily self-care skills like bathing. Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder describes intellectual and learning disabilities or behavioral issues that don’t quite meet the criteria for ND-PAE.

The third category is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which involves both physical and mental health concerns. Children with FAS are typically smaller than average and possess distinct facial features, such as a thin upper lip. They can also have central nervous system problems, such as low hand-eye coordination, difficulty with mathematical concepts, and hyperactivity. Partial fetal alcohol syndrome is used for cases that don’t meet the full criteria for FAS.

Describing children with FASDs as being “unfairly punished” or “paying the price” for parents’ behavior depicts this health issue as a sign of moral transgression. That framing can burden families affected by the disorder, obscure its root causes, and misrepresent the possibility for people with the condition to experience full and rewarding lives. Parents of children with FASD are often accused of being “selfish” and deliberately prioritizing their alcohol addiction over their child’s welfare. However, willpower alone cannot treat addictions, and shaming parents who drink can deter individuals from getting professional help for their alcohol misuse.

Many parents of kids with FASD don’t have an alcohol use disorder. Often the person was not planning on getting pregnant and drank alcohol before knowing they were. In other cases, individuals may have encountered misinformation about alcohol use during pregnancy and concluded that mild or moderate levels of drinking were safe. Parents can face severe stigma for their child’s condition. Some may hide the fact that they drank alcohol during the pregnancy for fear of getting reported to child protective services and losing their child. This can delay vital prenatal services for the child.

Additional resources


Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are a collection of conditions caused by prenatal alcohol use. Using the specific phrase instead of a stigmatizing term like “birth defect” is both more precise and accurate. Describing children with FASDs as being “unfairly punished” or “paying the price” for parents’ behavior depicts this health issue as a sign of moral transgression. This kind of framing risks burdening and stigmatizing families affected by the disorder, obscuring its root causes, and minimizing the possibility that people with these conditions can experience full and rewarding lives.