Do You Need to Know About Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder? (Clue:Yes)
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is a big deal. Protect your baby by learning about FASD from the experts at Alcohol Healthwatch
6 min read
Have you ever asked a mum-to-be whether she wants a girl or boy, to hear the answer: “I don’t mind as long as my baby is healthy”? It’s very common for a ‘healthy baby’ to be the top priority.
We know there are mixed messages and loads of advice out there but let’s cut right to it: Drinking alcohol while pregnant can reduce your chances of having the healthy baby you want.
It’s a fact that drinking alcohol during your pregnancy increases the chance of premature birth or losing your child through a miscarriage or stillbirth.
That’s not all. Drinking alcohol while carrying a child can interfere with healthy development and cause Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). We’re going to answer your questions about alcohol and FASD below.
Ok, I’m listening. What is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is the leading preventable cause of intellectual disability in the developed world. It describes a broad spectrum of physical and developmental disabilities occurring over a person’s lifetime, as a direct result of exposure to alcohol during pregnancy.
It’s important for women trying to conceive or who are already pregnant to know that the baby is not protected from the damaging effects of alcohol. There is no safe time, amount or type of alcohol that can be considered safe for brain and organ development.
Can you be a bit more specific about the effects of FASD?
A small number of e children affected by fetal alcohol exposure in early pregnancy can have altered facial features, poor growth and physical abnormalities Other children with FASD have no physical signs of damage but still experience significant difficulties with learning, behaviour and development caused by damage to the brain from alcohol exposure.
The brain does not stop developing so is at risk of damage throughout pregnancy. Because these changes are hidden in the brain, problems with learning and behaviour may not be noticeable until the child is school-age.
A child with FASD faces lifelong challenges.
What’s the cure for FASD?
No. Unfortunately this earliest type of brain injury is permanent. That is not to say there is zero chance of improving outcomes. It just means those affected by prenatal alcohol exposure will need a different level of support and understanding than other children and adults.
You keep mentioning ‘alcohol exposure’…is this how FASD is caused?
Yes. FASD can only be caused by alcohol.
The level of harm is dependent on a range of complex factors, such as the amount, frequency and timing of alcohol use. Other factors also influence the outcome such as individual genetics of the mother father and the child, maternal age and health of the mother, other substance use and external factors such as exposure to stress, violence or other negative experiences.
Not all babies exposed to alcohol will be born with the full effects of FASD. At this point, it is not possible to predict which babies will be more or less affected at what level of exposure.
Isn’t FASD only a risk if the mum-to-be is binge-drinking?
Not just binge-drinking – harm to the baby is more likely from binge-drinking but any alcohol can alter cell development. Some studies including from New Zealand have found altered behaviour and temperament in children exposed to low amounts of alcohol. The higher the amount and frequency of drinking, the greater the likelihood of permanent damage.
As not all babies are affected in the same way by alcohol, there is no way of knowing who is more or less at risk. Since we are not able to compare apples with apples, not drinking any amount remains the only protection.
How common is FASD…?
International studies conservatively estimate FASD occurs in at least 1 out of every 100 live births. However, the numbers are thought to be substantially higher in New Zealand.
Why? Because Kiwis have grown up in a culture of hazardous drinking, believing this to be a normal part of being an adult. Add to that the influence of alcohol marketing (particularly to women), relatively low cost of alcohol (cheaper than bottled water) and easy availability, it should be no surprise why we drink at levels that are harmful to our health and others. There could be 3,000 babies born in New Zealand each year with this preventable disorder.
Ok, so you said FASD is preventable. What can I do?
Enjoy a sober pregnancy knowing this will give your baby the best possible start in life!
Remember that alcohol can harm the developing fetus at any stage during pregnancy so if you think you might be pregnant but don’t know for sure, stop drinking. For women who are planning a pregnancy, or unsure if they could be pregnant, not drinking is the safest option.
I had a drink before I found out I was pregnant! What can I do?
You can stop now if you haven’t already. Stopping drinking at any stage of pregnancy will increase the chance of your baby being born healthy. If you are worried you can talk to your midwife, doctor or another health professional.
I’m pregnant now and I’m finding it difficult to stop drinking. What can I do?
We know it can be harder for some people to stop drinking than others. There is lots of help out there and stopping drinking really is one of the best things you can do to grow a healthy baby.
Encourage your friends, family and partner to support your alcohol-free pregnancy by not drinking around you. There are more and more fabulous non-alcohol drinks on the market now to take a ‘PREGNANT PAUSE’ from drinking. We are all still capable of having a good laugh stone cold sober!
We urge you to seek help STRAIGHT AWAY if you think you need support to quit drinking. Talk to your midwife, doctor, another health professional or contact the Alcohol Drug Helpline (call 0800 787 797, visit their website, or free text 8681). Do it today.