What is fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)?

  • In Canada, over 1.4 million people are living with FASD.
  • In Canada, over 3,000 children are born with FASD every year.
  • In New Brunswick, about 250 children are born with FASD every year. 

FASD describes the physical and/or neurodevelopmental disorder(s) affecting children whose mothers consumed alcohol during pregnancy.

In many cases, people with FASD do not have visible physical characteristics but their brain has been affected.


FASD refers to two medical diagnoses :

FASD with characteristic facial traits

  • Combination of three characteristic facial traits
  • Short palpebral fissure (small eyes)
  • Flat philtrum (space between nose and upper lip, which is flat)
  • Thin upper lip
  • Prenatal exposure to alcohol confirmed or unknown
  • Proof of gaps in at least three areas of neurological development or microcephaly in newborns and young children


FASD without characteristic facial characteristics

  • Proof of gaps in at least three areas of neurological development
  • Prenatal exposure to alcohol confirmed


“Risk of neurodevelopmental disorder and FASD associated with prenatal exposure to alcohol” is not a diagnosis but rather a category for people when:

  • Prenatal alcohol consumption during pregnancy is confirmed;
  • The person was too young when the assessment was performed or the assessment was incomplete because the person was unable to complete all the required tests.


Children born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) may have:

  • A small head (microcephaly);
  • Delayed growth;
  • Problems with their heart or other vital organs;
  • Problems with agitation or trouble sleep.

FASD may affect growth, the central nervous system, and sometimes the face.

In FASD cases, nearly one child out of 10 has facial abnormalities.

Babies may have trouble nursing, may cry a lot, or may sleep too much. People with FASD may refuse to eat or eat too much.

People with FASD are unpredictable.

The brain develops through the entire pregnancy from the 17th day after conception, i.e. the seventh week after the last menstrual period, when the new mother doesn’t yet know that she’s pregnant.

Alcohol affects brain development throughout the pregnancy.

  • No time is safe. – No drinking must take place during the nine months of pregnancy. 
  • A sexually active woman who is not using contraception must not drink alcohol.
  • No type of alcohol is safe during pregnancy.
  • No amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy.


Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can cause irreversible brain damage to an unborn child and result in lifelong difficulties in several areas.


The person:

  • Has problems at school, especially in math, reading, science, comprehension, organization, and abstract concepts.


Concentration and attention

The person:

  • Is easily distracted, overexcited, inattentive, and hyperactive.


Thinking and reasoning

The person:

  • Has difficulty reasoning, planning, problem solving, and understanding complex ideas.



The person:

  • May express themselves correctly but without really understanding what they’re saying;
  • May have language delays and difficulty understanding long conversations and instructions;
  • Is able to repeat instructions but does not always follow them.



The person:

  • Has problems with short- and long-term memory and working memory;
  • Sometimes appears to be lying but is only filling in memory gaps when they can’t remember
  • Has trouble finding, selecting, organizing, and memorizing information.


Executive function 

The person:

  • Has trouble planning, linking ideas, solving problems, and organizing information;
  • Has trouble understanding cause and effect relationships and foreseeing consequences;
  • Has trouble controlling their emotions and is sometimes impulsive;
  • Has trouble with transitions and changes;
  • Often repeats the same mistakes;
  • Has trouble with abstract concepts and time management.


Sensory area

The person: 

  • Is unable to accurately perceive what is going on around them;
  • Is sensitive to light, noise, touch, odours, and food smells;
  • May overreact or underreact to stimulation.


Everyday skills and social skills

The person:

  • Does not always understand personal boundaries;
  • Has trouble picking up social signals;
  • Is sometimes socially vulnerable and easily exploited;
  • Has trouble seeing things from someone else’s point of view;
  • Lacks social and emotional maturity and sometimes acts like someone younger.

FASD is a lifelong disability.  A child with FASD will become an adult with FASD.


Other terms used to describe FASD

In the past, various diagnostic terms have been used to describe the disorders caused by alcohol during pregnancy:

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS);
  • Prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE);
  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD);
  • Partial fetal alcohol syndrome (pFAS);
  • Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND).