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The Sad Truth About Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FASDs)

We’ve all come across a situation where we’ve witnessed a pregnant friend, loved one, or even a complete stranger indulging in a glass of wine during a “special occasion.” So, how much alcohol is OK during pregnancy? Can drinking alcohol harm an unborn child? 

In this article, we break down everything you need to know about fetal alcohol syndrome and why a glass of wine or a bottle of beer is never a good idea when you’re expecting. 

Continue reading to learn more!

What Are Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders?

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) is an umbrella term that refers to a wide array of long-term and irreversible defects and diagnoses linked to alcohol exposure during pregnancy. Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) belongs to this category and represents the most involved end of the FASD spectrum. Other FASD diagnoses are: 

  • Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND) 
  • Alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD)

Symptoms of FASDs 

The severity of the effects of FASD varies depending on several contributing factors, including the amount of alcohol consumed, frequency of consumption, and the mother’s overall health during pregnancy.

The symptoms differ from child to child and are often a mix of mild to severe developmental delays, severe physical deformities, intellectual or cognitive disabilities, and social and behavioural concerns. 

These include:

  • Distinctly abnormal facial features (i.e. a smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip called the philtrum)
  • Deformities of joints, limbs, and fingers
  • Poor physical growth before and after birth
  • Hearing and vision impairments
  • An abnormally small head and brain size
  • Congenital heart defects
  • Kidney, bone, and internal organ failure 
  • Low IQ
  • Poor balance, coordination, and fine motor skills
  • Seizures 

In addition, children diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome are also prone to having secondary disabilities in the form of emotional and behavioural problems as they grow up. These complications, which may not be immediately recognized at birth, can include: 

  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Impulsiveness and aggression
  • Alcohol and drug misuse
  • Difficulty interacting with other kids and understanding the consequences of their actions
  • Mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders
  • High risk of death by accident or suicide

Pregnant woman holding a glass of wine

No Amount of Alcohol Is Safe to Drink During Pregnancy 

While previous research may suggest that drinking a little alcohol early in your pregnancy may not be a problem, health experts and the latest scientific studies prove otherwise.

Dr. Ilan Shapiro, a pediatrician at AltaMed Health Services and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics spoke to this, “To my knowledge, there is no threshold of drinking alcohol during pregnancy known to provide a guide as to how much will cause the syndrome or not. Therefore, women are advised not to imbibe at all during pregnancy.”

Dr. Kecia Gaither, director of perinatal services at NYC Health & Hospitals/Lincoln, adds that because alcohol is a teratogen, it causes anomalies affecting the developing fetal brain, heart, and facial features, ultimately impairing normal growth.

Furthermore, the results of a 2020 study in the International Journal of Epidemiology, which analyzed 23 previously published studies, confirmed that alcohol exposure during pregnancy results in children with poorer cognitive functions and increases the risk of lower birth weight, which are two common symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome.

Prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Canada and The U.S. 

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is the primary known cause of preventable developmental disability in Canada, however, the number of people who have FASD is unknown in the country nor anywhere else in the world because it often goes undetected. 

According to Health Canada, studies conducted between 1985 and 1997 suggest that an estimated 1% of Canadians (360,000 people) have FASD. A significantly higher prevalence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders is noted in aboriginal populations and those living in rural, remote, and northern communities. 

On the other hand, recent studies conducted on first-grade students from the U.S. and other Western European countries estimate that between 2 to 5% have FASD. Despite what’s been written about the detrimental effects of living with fetal alcohol syndrome, a 2020 report published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that both current alcohol use and binge drinking among pregnant women aged 18 to 44 in the United States increased slightly from 2011 to 2018.

  • Current drinking (having at least one drink of any alcoholic beverage in the past 30 days) increased from 9.2% in 2011 to 11.3% in 2018.
  • Binge drinking (having four or more drinks on an occasion during the past 30 days) increased from 2.5% to 4.0% in that same time period.

Pregnant woman standing near a bassinet

Pregnancy and Alcohol Use 

To this day, there is no known treatment for fetal alcohol syndrome disorders. Prevention and early intervention are the only ways to mitigate its risks. Follow these guidelines to minimize the possibility of FASDs:

  • If you are expecting or trying to conceive, you must stop all forms of alcohol consumption immediately. Aside from alcohol spectrum disorders, alcohol exposure during pregnancy also raises risks for miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature delivery. 
  • Use contraceptives and avoid unprotected sex if you are sexually active and in your childbearing years. Alcohol exposure can be the most damaging during the earliest weeks of pregnancy. Avoid unplanned pregnancy by staying on top of your birth control strategy.
  • Stop drinking as soon as you find out that you are expecting. Often, in unplanned pregnancies, a woman is unaware of her condition and may continue to drink socially. In this case, it is crucial to understand that it is never too late to quit and to see your doctor immediately. The sooner you stop drinking, the safer you and your baby will be.
  • If you have an alcohol addiction, seek professional help first before trying to conceive. Pregnancy is a vulnerable period for a woman mentally, emotionally, and physically. Preparing yourself in every aspect is pivotal in ensuring successful delivery and the best health for your baby. 

Finding Help 

If you are concerned about yours or a loved one’s current drinking behaviour and the potential risks of fetal alcohol syndrome, please do not hesitate to reach out to us. Freedom From Addiction is a private addiction treatment facility near Toronto, Ontario. 

Contact us today!


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