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Understanding and Preventing Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Do you know what the only preventable form of mental retardation is?  Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

For some reason, there seems to be a lot of confusion among pregnant women about how much alcohol they can safely consume. The answer is extremely simple: NONE.  There is no amount of alcohol consumption known to be safe during pregnancy, and no specific minimum amount a pregnant woman must drink in order to put her baby at risk for being born with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).

Unlike an adult, the fetus does not have the liver enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase and consequently cannot metabolize alcohol; resulting in alcohol hanging around and causing damage. 

FASDs occur in babies whose mothers drank alcoholic beverages while pregnant, and can cause a range of symptoms including physical, behavioral, and learning problems. It is very common for a person with an FASD to have a combination of these problems. FASDs are entirely preventable – by simply not drinking while you’re pregnant. There is no known safe time during pregnancy to drink, and no known safe amount you can drink. And because women often don’t know they’re pregnant until several weeks in, any woman who might become pregnant should not drink, either.

Signs and Symptoms of FASDs

FASDs is a term that refers to the whole group of possible disorders babies whose mothers drank while pregnant are vulnerable to. The specific symptoms range from mild to severe and may include:

  • An abnormal facial appearance
  • A smaller-than-normal head
  • Short stature and low body weight
  • Problems with coordination
  • Hyperactivity, attention deficit, memory problems
  • Learning disabilities
  • Mental retardation
  • Speech delays
  • Poor reasoning skills
  • Sleep problems
  • Hearing or vision problems
  • Heart, kidney, or bone problems

Types of FASDs

There are several types of FASDs. The term used to describe an individual disorder depends on the specific symptoms present. For example, fetal alcohol syndrome refers to the more severe symptoms on the FASD spectrum. Fetal death is one such possible outcome of maternal drinking during pregnancy. Fetal alcohol syndrome sufferers may also have growth problems, problems involving the central nervous system, and abnormal facial features, among other problems.

Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder can cause intellectual disabilities, and these individuals generally do poorly in school, especially when it comes to math, attention, memory, and impulse control. There are also alcohol-related birth defects which can range from hearing loss to heart problems and more.

Treatment for FASDs

There is no cure for FASDs. However, early treatments are imperative and can be effective at improving a child’s development and quality of life. Treatment options include medication for certain symptoms, certain types of therapy, parent education, and more. There is no one treatment that will be right for every child or every type of FASD. Early diagnosis and intervention, a stable and loving home environment, and involvement with special education services can all help people with FASDs overcome their disability and reach their full potential.

It’s never okay to drink alcohol while you are pregnant.  Read my book, Inside Information for Women, for more information on this. You’re only pregnant for a few months, and the choices you make now last two lifetimes: yours and your baby’s.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H