By Sylvia Nilsen
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) refers to a range of birth defects that is caused by the mother drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Defects can include abnormal facial features, nervous system disorders, physical problems and cognitive / behavioral abnormalities.
FAS is the third highest cause of mental retardation in newborn babies and is the only birth defect that is 100% preventable.
Kerry* was 16 when she fell pregnant. The father was a 17 year-old school drop out with a history of alcohol and drug abuse. They were part of a young rebellious crowd that raved and partied almost every night. He was a one-night-stand and Kerry never bothered to tell him that he was a father. She also kept her pregnancy a secret from her friends and family until the eighth month, keeping up her reckless lifestyle of binge drinking and smoking.
Jason* was a small for size baby. It was obvious from an early age that there was something wrong with him. His development was slow and he had a slurred abnormal speech. He was also prone to tantrums and aggression. In his first two years of schooling, Jason was in and out of over a dozen schools. He was disruptive in class and un-cooperative. In Grade two he was held back a year but he had had a very short attention span and was often left to sit in the corner. It wasn’t until he went to Senior Primary school that he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Hyperactivity. Further investigation showed that he had many of the characteristics of FAS. Jason is now thirteen years old and is in grade five.
Few women drink in order to harm their babies and in most instances women who drink during the first trimester don’t even know that they are pregnant. No mother would offer her newborn baby a brandy, whiskey or a glass of wine but when a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, she shares drink for drink with her unborn baby. Alcohol bridges the placental barrier and passes from the mother to the fetus with dire effects. In alcoholic mothers, babies can be born drunk and suffer withdrawal symptoms. The older a woman gets who drinks during pregnancy the higher the risk of FAS in her baby.
Ms Leigh-Anne Fourie, FAS Project Coordinator for the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR) says that South Africa has one of the highest incidences of FAS in children in the world. In two populations in the Northern Cape Province the FAS prevalence rates exceed 122 per 1000 and 75 per 1000 respectively, which is the highest in the world. (The rate for developed nations is only 15 per 1000). In four socio-economically poor communities in Gauteng, the rate is 22 per 1000 children.
But it isn’t only women from poorer communities who are at risk. With the popular trend of binge drinking in clubs, all women need to be made aware of the possible damage they can be doing to their unborn child.
I enjoy a couple of drinks at night. Surely this can’t be dangerous?
There is no evidence that even one glass of alcohol does NOT affect the growing fetus therefore, the best advice is not to consume ANY alcohol before or during pregnancy. Scientists have found that excessive alcohol intake can adversely affect a woman’s eggs, especially older women, which can lead to babies being born with FAS.
How does my drinking affect the baby?
In the first trimester alcohol can affect the developing embryo altering the way the cells
divide and multiply. The developing brain is particularly sensitive and any alcohol drunk can result in the number of cells to diminish incomplete development of parts of the brain or neurons found in the wrong parts of the brain.
In the second trimester alcohol can cause a reduction in skull size, facial malformations, growth retardation and organ malformations, particularly of the heart and genital organs. If there is binge drinking, the fetus becomes distressed and the risk of miscarriage is high.
In the third trimester the fetus grows rapidly and the brain develops substantially during this period. Alcohol impairs this growth.
What about the father?
There have been studies proving paternal contribution to FAS, however as the damage caused by FAS and FAE occurs in-utero, these studies have not found sufficient evidence. Other scientific research has proven that alcohol has an effect on sperm, resulting in the genetic predisposition towards later alcoholism of the unborn infant. FAS and the features of FAS are the direct result of mothers ingesting alcohol during pregnancy.
How can you tell if a child has FAS/FAE?
The clinical classification of FAS is complex and depends on the characteristics and symptoms that are observed during a clinical examination, as well as confirmed maternal alcohol use. FAS is identified by facial abnormalities such as small eyes with heavy eyelids, small jaw, thin upper lip, small size for age, delayed growth, problems with fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination as well as intellectual and behavioural problems such as learning difficulties, difficulties with reasoning and understanding consequences.
FAS is easier to diagnose than FAE (Fetal Alcohol Effects) because of recognizable facial features and other characteristics. Children with FAE often go un-diagnosed as they usually look normal and appear to have normal intelligence. However, they have suffered brain damage that can result in learning difficulties, hyper activity, and aggressive or violent behaviour, as well as an inability to understand or foresee the consequence of their behaviour.
The Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR) has this advice:
If you are drinking alcohol regularly, use effective birth control, preventing you from falling pregnant
If you are planning to have a baby, you and your partner should both stop drinking alcohol a few months before you start trying to fall pregnant.
A woman should NOT drink ANY alcohol during her pregnancy.
If you have a child with any of the above features and characteristics and know that you drank alcohol during pregnancy have them assessed by a paediatrician so that they can receive the support and special education that they need.
About the Author
Author: I am a freelance writer who has been published in a number of consumer magazines – Children, pregnancy, Food and Enterntainment, Women, Travel etc. http://www.amawalker.blogspot.com or