Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)

Stop drinking alcohol if you could be pregnant, are pregnant or are trying to get pregnant. There is no known safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

Babies exposed to alcohol before birth may develop fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). FASD can cause problems including:

  • low birth weight
  • distinctive facial features
  • heart defects
  • behavioural problems
  • intellectual disability.

There is no cure for FASD and its effects last a lifetime.

Alcohol and the risk to unborn babies

If you drink alcohol during pregnancy, your unborn baby is exposed to similar levels of alcohol as you are. The alcohol crosses from your blood through the placenta and into the baby’s bloodstream.

Alcohol can:

  • stop your unborn baby’s nervous system (including the brain) from developing properly
  • cause changes in the development of your baby’s face, resulting in the typical FASD facial features.

In severe cases, babies affected by alcohol exposure may die before they are born.

Risk factors for FASD

FASD occurs in babies exposed to alcohol during pregnancy, but not all babies exposed to alcohol have FASD.

The biggest risk factors are:

  • the amount of alcohol drunk, especially over a short time
  • how often alcohol is drunk throughout the pregnancy.

Frequent binge drinking puts your baby at the most risk.

Where to get help

If you’re pregnant and worried that your drinking might be harmful, talk to your GP or midwife.

The Alcohol Drug Helpline is also available for free, confidential information, help and support:

  • 0800 787 797 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week.)
  • visit their website
  • free text 8681.

Diagnosing FASD

If you drank alcohol while you were pregnant, and have concerns about your child’s development, talk to your GP who may make a referral for an assessment for FASD. An accurate diagnosis is important. It can help your child to get the support they need.

There is no specific medical test for FASD. A diagnosis requires input from a range of professionals including a doctor and a psychologist. It will be based on:

  • their knowledge of your child’s exposure to alcohol before birth
  • the diagnostic criteria for FASD

In severe cases, FASD may be diagnosed at birth, but often the diagnosis occurs later, when the child is having problems with learning or behaviour. Sometimes, the condition may never be diagnosed.

If you’re worried about your child, talk to your GP or Well Child nurse.

Support for people with FASD

FASD cannot be cured but it can be managed. There are limited FASD-specific programmes in New Zealand but help may be available in your area for learning, communication and behaviour issues and for intellectual disabilities.

Talk to your GP or Well Child nurse about getting help for your child. If your child is at school, you can also talk to their teacher.

Please note that the government is currently developing more targeted supports through the FASD Action Plan.

Prevalence of FASD

There is no data on the prevalence of FASD in New Zealand, but international studies and expert opinion suggest that around 3 to 5 percent of people may be affected by the effects of alcohol exposure before birth. This implies that around 1800–3000 babies may be born with FASD each year in New Zealand.

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