Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder
September 9th is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) Awareness Day. This day was chosen as it is the 9th day of the 9th month to reflect on and remember that during the 9 months of pregnancy a woman should abstain from all use of alcohol. This day is an opportunity to raise awareness about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy and to recognize the difficulties that the millions of individuals and families who struggle with FASD are facing.
What is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?
FASD is a term used to describe the range of effects that can occur in someone whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. These effects, which can vary from mild to severe, may include physical, mental, behavioural, and/or leaning disabilities that last a lifetime. Although FASD is 100% preventable, it is currently a leading known cause of developmental disability in Canada. In fact, it is estimated that between 2-3 percent of children are born with FASD.
How does alcohol affect a fetus?
When a woman consumes alcohol while pregnant, her fetus is exposed directly to alcohol through her bloodstream (it passes from the mother’s blood to the baby’s blood). Alcohol can damage and affect the growth of the baby’s cells. The brain and spinal cord cells are most likely to have damage.
What does FASD look like?
Physically, alcohol can lead to miscarriage, infants with low birth weights, small heads, facial deformities, poor coordination and physical disabilities.
Cognitively, there can be developmental delays and learning disabilities, trouble with memory, attention deficits leading to school and work problems, difficulty reasoning and thinking things through, as well as learning from mistakes.
Emotionally and Socially, individuals with FASD can suffer with depression, and other mental health issues, have trouble interacting with people, trouble understanding consequences, as well as difficulty with time management and handling money.
Is there a safe amount of alcohol to consume during pregnancy?
There is no known safe amount of alcohol which can be consumed during pregnancy. Because there are many factors at play that can affect a baby and cause FASD, the medical community and FASD researchers recommend the following:
- If you are planning a pregnancy it is important to stop drinking alcohol at least 3 months before trying to conceive.
- If you are pregnant, remember that no amount or type of alcohol at any time is safe in pregnancy. Occasional drinks are not better than binge drinking (considered to be 4 or more drinks in one occasion for women).
- If you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy and cannot quit drinking, speak with your health care provider to find out ways to help you decrease your alcohol intake.
Are some types of alcohol less harmful?
Any type of alcohol can harm your baby (beer, coolers, wine or spirits). Pregnancy and alcohol (no matter the type or amount) don’t mix.
What if someone consumes alcohol before they knew they were pregnant?
More than half of pregnancies are unplanned in Northwestern Ontario; therefore, you may not know you are pregnant until you are 1 to 2 months along the way, which are critical periods of development for the fetus. In this case, the best thing you can do to help your baby is to stop drinking alcohol once you are aware of your pregnancy. It’s never too late to stop drinking; however, the sooner you stop drinking, the safer it will be for you and your baby.
In terms of preventing FASD, consider using birth control if you are a woman of childbearing age and are sexually active who consumes any amount of alcohol. If you have unplanned/unprotected sex, abstain from alcohol until you know you are not pregnant. Or, as mentioned above, abstain from consuming alcohol for at least 3 months if you are planning a pregnancy.
Does all the responsibility fall on women?
Anyone who has a relationship with women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy (i.e. partner, father, other family members, friends, community members, etc.) should support women in not drinking during their pregnancy. They can support them by becoming educated and sharing their knowledge, by quitting drinking as a support buddy during the pregnancy, and by never suggesting that one drink or particular kind of alcohol is safe.
For more information on FASD, please contact the Thunder Bay District Health Unit at 807-229-1280. The Marathon location offers program and services that focus on healthy pregnancies and promoting the healthy growth and development of children, including the Healthy Babies Healthy Children program and the Baby Beginnings program.
You can also find more information on the following websites:
Government of Canada: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/fetal-alcohol-spectrum-disorder.html