Alcohol Use and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Connections to Cerebral Palsy

For some time, medical professionals and laypersons alike have known that it is a mistake to consume alcohol while pregnant. While alcohol consumption certainly has negative effects on the mother’s health, the greater concern during pregnancy is the impact the mother’s alcohol consumption will have on her unborn child. When a pregnant mother consumes more than four standard-sized drinks (the equivalent of four, 12-ounce cans of beer) per day, the woman’s child is at a greater risk of developing fetal alcohol syndrome disorders (FASD) (although it should be noted that FASD can be present even in children whose mothers drank less than four, standard-sized alcoholic drinks).

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – Its Cause and Complications

Fetal alcohol syndrome disorders include several physical and/or neurological issues that can develop in the child as a result of the mother’s consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is one of the most severe FASDs that can result from alcohol consumption during pregnancy. A diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome is made after finding the following three characteristics: (1) prebirth or postbirth height or weight that is at or below the tenth percentile; (2) the presence of small eye openings, smooth philtrum, and a thin upper lip; (3) harm to the central nervous system as evidenced by significant structural, neurological, and/or functional damage and impairment; and (4) documented exposure of the child to alcohol while the child’s mother was pregnant. Some of the complications that can result from FAS include learning disabilities, behavioral difficulties, and difficulties with fine and gross motor skills.

The Link Between FAS and Cerebral Palsy

Alcohol consumption causes damage to the developing brain; thus, it is not unusual for children who are diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome to develop Cerebral Palsy. About eight percent (that is, eight out of every 100) cases of fetal alcohol syndrome will also lead to Cerebral Palsy. Cerebral Palsy can describe several conditions related to one another in that they each impact the development of the brain, resulting in difficulty controlling one or more muscle groups. Cerebral Palsy is different and distinct from fetal alcohol syndrome in three significant ways:

  • First, a diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome must include a determination that the mother consumed alcohol while she was pregnant with the child. In the case of Cerebral Palsy, the condition may be caused by alcohol consumption but no such determination need be conclusively made in order to support the diagnosis.
  • Next, some of the main symptoms of Cerebral Palsy have little to do with the face (although certain types of Cerebral Palsy can manifest themselves in difficulty managing the muscles of the head, neck, and torso). Conversely, the symptoms used to make a diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome are physical observations about the face of the child.
  • Finally, fetal alcohol syndrome is more likely to lead to cognitive impairment and retardation than Cerebral Palsy. Although Cerebral Palsy can result in mental impairment and cognitive challenges, the link is not as strong as it is with FAS.

Unless one is observant and notes the signs of fetal alcohol syndrome, it can be difficult to tie a particular child’s Cerebral Palsy diagnosis to fetal alcohol syndrome (or even to alcohol use in general, if the mother is not honest with medical staff). Diagnosing the cause of Cerebral Palsy is important for the professionals who will be attempting to assist the child and his or her family in managing the limitations imposed by the child’s Cerebral Palsy as the mechanism that caused the Cerebral Palsy can play a role in determining the type of challenges the child will face.

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