More than 30 years ago scientists introduced the term, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), to describe a group of mental and physical birth defects that result from a woman drinking alcohol when pregnant.
Children with FAS are exposed in utero to various levels of maternal drinking and display distinct facial abnormalities, growth retardation, and brain damage.
FAS is an irreversible, lifelong condition that affects every aspects of a child’s life. This includes problems with memory, learning, problem solving, attention span, hearing and speech.
Pre-natal alcohol exposure remains the leading known preventable cause of physical, behavioral and neurological birth abnormalities.
The type and extent of disabilities from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome vary based on the time and length of exposure during pregnancy, as well as individual differenced in the child. There is no safe dose of alcohol or safe period to drink during pregnancy.
When brain damage is present without other physical traits and abnormalities following fetal alcohol exposure, the diagnosis most often is called Fetal Alcohol Effect (FAE). Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder is another term used to describe this condition.
What Do the Numbers Say?
No safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy has been established.
The prevalence of FAS is estimated to be between 0.2 and 2 per 1,000 live births in the United States.
Estimates suggest that more than 1,000 babies are born each year with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Canada.
Statistics indicate that 3% to 5% of all school-age children have FAE while 80% to 85% were exposed prenatally to alcohol via their mother's placenta while the remaining 15% to 20% had prenatal exposure through other means such as drinking social beverages at bars or while consuming alcoholic beverages while breastfeeding.
As many as 4 million pregnancies may occur annually when women are intoxicated or drinking heavily; this may represent as much as 11% of all births.
How does Fetal Alcohol Syndrome happen?
The biggest problem with FAS is that nobody can predict the extent of damage to a developing baby caused by drinking. Even women who do not binge drink may be putting their babies at risk because alcohol remains in their system for several hours, or up to 3 days after drinking.
A woman's metabolism breaks down about one ounce (one shot) of ethanol per hour. That means it takes approximately 8-9 hours to eliminate one standard drink from her blood and organs, and the residual affects of the alcohol remain in her body during this process.
As little as 2 standard drinks per day puts a woman at increased risk, and studies show that even low levels of drinking during pregnancy are associated with an increased risk of developmental problems in babies.
If a woman drinks more than 2 standard drinks per day she is 3-4 times more likely to have a child with FAS, compared to women who do not drink at all while pregnant.
A mother's alcohol intake during pregnancy doesn't just affect the baby while it's developing. It also impacts how the baby grows after birth into childhood, adolescence, and even adulthood.
The more alcohol consumed during pregnancy results in greater risk for developmental disabilities in children. The actual outward symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are most easily observable in infants born to alcoholic mothers, but they can range from subtle behavioral issues through young adulthood if alcohol exposure occurs prenatally or continues after birth.
Brain damage from prenatal alcohol exposure causes individuals to suffer a wide range of neurobehavioral effects such as learning and memory deficits, attention problems, hyperactivity and reduction in IQ.
Children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome may learn a concept one day, but the next day it is gone, only to reappear unexpected at some time in the future.
FAS children may be able to recall the details of a camping trip from long ago, but not able to remember what they had for lunch. If they drop a pencil while working on a math sheet, they may have forgotten what they were doing by the time they get the pencil back.
The results of a research study published in the September 2002 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research demonstrated that children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome experience deficits in information processing and response capabilities compared to children who were not exposed to alcohol in utero.
Not only are learning, memory and behavior affected, these deficits impede a child’s ability to plan and guide behavior to achieve a given goal, which are critical in the education process.
While there is not a cure for FAS, early diagnosis and identification helps children increase their potential. Research by University of Washington Professor Ann Streissguth revealed that people diagnosed with Fetal Alcoholism Syndrome are more likely to escape social, learning and relationship problems if they are diagnosed early in life and raised in a stable and nurturing environment.
Research has increased to advance the understanding of the long-term cognitive and physical challenges of children exposed to alcohol in the womb. As a result, clinicians and behavioral scientists are finding ways to identify children early and ways to help.
Unfortunately, many women continue to consume alcohol during pregnancy because of lack of education or concern. Finding powerful new ways to reach, educate and change behavior so expectant mothers don’t drink while pregnant remains immensely challenging and absolutely critical.
Drinking alcohol when you are pregnant can cause damage to the baby's brain and other problems in its development. The sooner you stop drinking, the better it is for your child. There are professionals who can help you quit alcohol. Contact a dedicated treatment provider today.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
- National Center for Birth Defects and Development Disabilities (NCBDDD), Centers for Disease Control
- "Teaching Students with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome," Government of British Columbia, Ministry of Education
- "Prenatal Alcohol Exposure Can Damage Both Information Processing and Response Capabilities," Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, by R.W. Simmons and S.W. Jacobson