You’ve heard the term fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), but have you listened? FAS is a condition that results in a baby’s exposure to alcohol during the mother’s pregnancy. While symptoms vary from one child to another, the most common signs are brain damage and growth problems. Scary, right? It gets worse. The defects are irreversible.
In the past, an estimated one in 100 children were born with FAS in the United States. But a new study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) published in JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association shows that number is now one in 20 children.
“These shocking findings prove that practitioners, public health professionals, policy makers and the public need to wake up to this crisis,” says Tom Donaldson, president of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS). “More education, more services and better access to addiction treatment resources for women unable to stop drinking are urgently needed,” he adds.
FETAL ALCOHOL SYNDROME AT A GLANCE
There are many symptoms that can surface due to FAS, ranging from deformed limbs and developmental delays to hyperactivity and intellectual disabilities, even heart problems.
“The most common symptoms are changes in facial features, less than expected growth before and/or after birth, and varying degrees of neurological and behavioral disorders including mental retardation or even ADHD,” says Brandon Riggan, M.D., an OBGYN with TriStar Medical Group Bluegrass who delivers babies at TriStar Hendersonville Medical Center.
When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, readily crossing the placenta into the fetus. “As to the fetus’ reaction to the alcohol, one can only assume it would be similar to the mother,” Riggan says, noting that the fetus’ liver is not developed enough to neutralize the toxin.
NO SAFE AMOUNT
It’s a recurring question: Is there such a thing as safe alcohol consumption during pregnancy?
“At this point there is no documented safe amount of alcohol to consume in pregnancy,” says Riggan.
What about women who don’t know they’re pregnant and have been partying?
“Most studies show that FAS is more likely in women who consume alcohol throughout the pregnancy rather than at a specific time, although some outcomes are more common to exposure at different points of pregnancy,” Riggan says. He notes neurologic development continues throughout the pregnancy, so a pattern of continued alcohol use is more detrimental to the fetus.
Diagnosis of FAS is difficult to determine until after birth. Since there is no cure, Riggan emphasizes “the earliest beneficial intervention is to help the mother stop drinking, and there are many programs available for this.”
For children with FAS, Riggan suggests parents utilize programs aimed at improving behavior regulation skills along with others offering academic assistance and tutoring methods.
If you are pregnant and have a problem with alcohol, find help through one of these local resources:
Bradford Health Services
Mending Hearts (women only)
The Next Door (women only)