If you’re an expectant mother – or planning to be one – then you should be mindful of what you eat and drink. Expectedly, nutritious foods can boost your baby’s health, while harmful substances, such as alcohol, can take a toll on the health of your unborn child.
Continued alcohol drinking during pregnancy – a habit 1 in 13 women are guilty of – can affect more than just the mother. More often than not, it can lead to physical defects and mental deficits in the unborn child. This is what experts refer to as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD).
What is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?
Also known as FASD, this group of conditions stem from one thing – and that is the mother’s intake of alcohol during pregnancy. According to an article by Vorgias and Bernstein, it affects 24 to 48 in every 1,000 American babies.
Alcohol portions are directly related to FASD, meaning the more alcohol the woman drinks, the more severe her child’s FASD would be. This is especially the case if the mother goes beyond the minimal levels, which is more than 2 drinks in one sitting, or more than 13 servings in a month.
While drinking during pregnancy is the primary cause behind FASD, some other risk factors can increase a woman’s chance of delivering a baby afflicted with the said condition:
- Age 30 and above with a long history of drinking
- Those who are ‘genetically’ wired to metabolize alcohol slowly
- Those who have had children with FASD
- Poor nutritional intake
Apart from causing FASD, alcohol intake can cause other pregnancy complications as well. Drinkers are at a higher risk of suffering from spontaneous abortions, chorioamnionitis, abruptio placenta, premature labor, and stillbirth.
With that being said, experts are clear on this: there is NO safe time – and NO safe amount – when it comes to drinking alcohol during pregnancy.
How does Alcohol Affect the Fetus?
Alcohol is teratogenic, meaning it can get in the way of the fetus’ proper development. It can cause irreversible damage – birth defects, which are obvious in the different types of FASD.
During pregnancy, the placenta delivers the baby’s needed nutrients through the umbilical cord. Expectedly, alcohol can reach the fetus through the same pathway.
Problems arise because the baby is unable to metabolize alcohol as well as an adult does. The substance then affects the brain, spinal cord, and other parts of the body. Such damage results in FASD’s hallmark symptoms, such as facial deformities, central nervous system problems, and growth retardation.
More than just wreaking havoc on the baby’s body, alcohol interferes with the delivery of oxygen and nutrition to the fetus as well. Indeed, this can further worsen the baby’s condition.
Types of FASD
Five types of conditions fall under the umbrella of FASD. They are:
1. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
This is the most common type of FASD. As per Vorgias and Bernstein, it occurs in 6 to 9 out 1,000 live births in the United States. It is the primary diagnosis when the child exhibits the following:
- 2 of 3 the following facial features:
- short palpebral fissures (the area between the eye)
- thin vermillion border (the line between the upper lip and the surrounding skin)
- smooth philtrum (also known as the medial cleft, or the crevice on top of the middle-upper lip)
- Growth retardation (during pregnancy or after birth)
- Defects in the Central Nervous System (CNS)
- Small overall head circumference
- Brain abnormalities, as visualized through MRI or CT Scan
- Low IQ
- Developmental delays
- Cognitive deficits such as slow movements, verbal/nonverbal difficulties
- Executive functioning deficits, such as inadequate organization or lack of inhibition
- Motor functioning deficits such as clumsiness, balance problems
- Attention and hyperactivity problems
- Problems with socialization
2. Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS)
An infant whose mother had alcohol exposure will be diagnosed with pFAS if he/she does not satisfy all the criteria for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome as stated above. Likewise, the child may exhibit some facial abnormalities, CNS problems, and growth delays as well.
3. Alcohol-Related Birth Defects
As the name suggests, the child may demonstrate physical birth defects – where the heart, kidney, bones, or the ears may be affected. However, it does not come with neurobehavioral deficits such as low IQ, difficulty in identifying abstract concepts, etc.
4. Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND)
Infants with this condition demonstrate neurobehavioral impairment (low IQ, difficulty in forming concepts, etc.) However, they have no physical deformities – or they may be so minimal that they are only diagnosed at age 3.
5. Neurobehavioral Disorder Associated with Prenatal Alcohol Exposure
This newly-proposed mental health diagnosis deals with the behavioral and mental health effects in children – with or without physical disabilities. This is in stark difference to ARND where there are NO physical changes noted.
A child diagnosed with this condition may have problems in three key areas:
- Thinking and Memory. The child may forget easily or may have trouble planning his activities.
- Behavior. He/she may have mood issues, tantrums, and attention problems.
- Activities of Daily Living. The child may find it difficult to bathe, dress up, and play with other children.
Complications of FASD
Because of the physical and mental changes associated with FASD, these children may suffer from secondary disabilities or complications such as:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Problems staying in/finishing school
- Mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and eating problems
- Inappropriate social conduct
- Aggression and violence, a tendency to break laws
- Problems with independent living and employment
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Early death due to suicide, accident, or homicide
Treatment for FASD
Unfortunately, there is NO treatment for FASD. Healthcare professionals can only provide treatments for the effects of the disorder. For example, those with neurobehavioral disorders may be given reminders and some teachings.
Another way that can mitigate the effects of FASD – and enable the child to live his/her full potential – is to deliver the following “protective factors”:
- Diagnosis before age 6
- Referral to special education and social services
- Provision of a loving and stable home environment
With that being said, experts would always remind women that prevention is better than cure. This means that alcoholism should be stopped at its tracks – not only before or during pregnancy, but at the soonest time possible.
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