Medical experts have known for more than 30 years that alcohol use during pregnancy is the number one cause of birth defects, including potentially devastating health problems and developmental delays.
According to the Institute of Medicine, alcohol produces more serious neurological and behavioral effects for infants than any other substance, including marijuana, cocaine or heroin.
If you think this applies only to women who are heavy drinkers or alcoholics, you’re wrong. There is no safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy, and because the substance passes to the fetus through the umbilical cord, even a glass of wine or a single beer may present a risk.
Keep in mind that the unborn baby will have the same blood alcohol concentration as the mama, but the fetus lacks the ability to safely metabolize the alcohol.
Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Disorder
Infants born with fetal alcohol disorder may display a combination of symptoms, either mild or severe. For example, a child might not display any obvious physical symptoms, although he might have serious problems with learning and behavior.
Symptoms of fetal alcohol disorder include:
- Abnormally small head
- Wide-set eyes, thin upper lip and other abnormal facial features
- Lack of balance and coordination
- Lack of focus
- Below average weight and height
- Problems with heart, kidneys or bones
- Hearing or vision problems
- Irritability and jitters
- Sleep problems
- Mental retardation
Researchers also believe alcohol use during pregnancy may result in serious defects such as spina bifida, cleft palate, hydrocephalus and narrowing of the aortic heart valve.
The Danger: When and How Much?
Any amount of alcohol during pregnancy is too much. However, NIH (the National Institute of Health) reports that the greatest danger to damage to a fetus is when a pregnant woman drinks four or more drinks in a single occasion, or more than several alcoholic drinks per week.
Fetal damage can occur at any point during pregnancy and drinking during the later stages of pregnancy is often responsible for brain damage that results in behavioral and learning problems down the road. However, the first trimester is critical for infant growth and development. This presents a real danger for women who are unaware they are pregnant.
Effects of fetal alcohol syndrome last a lifetime and there is no cure, although early intervention before age 6 may help with management of symptoms. Many children require special education, physical therapy, speech therapy, mental health counseling and a variety of social services.
By the time they reach their teen years, children with fetal alcohol syndrome frequently display poor social skills, memory impairments, decreased problem solving ability, compulsive behavior and poor impulse control.
As they go through life, many may need to take medications for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), anxiety, depression, aggressive behavior and sleep difficulties.
A Few Frightening Statistics
When queried, most women said they abstain from drinking once they know they are pregnant. However, despite the considerable danger, 12 percent of pregnant women admitted drinking at least once during the previous month. Two were binge drinkers.
In the United States, NIH estimates that there may be as many as two cases of fetal alcohol syndrome per 1,000 births. The rate is much higher in some parts of the world. In South Africa, for example, the rate is estimated at 60 per 1,000 births.
Easily Prevented with Drug and Alcohol Treatment or Rehab
If you plan to get pregnant, stop drinking now. If you are already pregnant, stopping immediately will prevent further risk to your unborn baby. If you have problem with abuse of alcohol, talk to your doctor as soon as possible and ask him to refer you to a drug and alcohol treatment center or rehab.
If you drink and you don’t want to get pregnant, use effective birth control to prevent an unplanned pregnancy.