I was 24, and my life was perfect. I was married to a wonderful husband and our first baby on the way. We were both so excited and spent many afternoons planning the future of our new little boy—who he would look like, what sport he would play, the school honors he would receive.
In the months to follow, I attended the usual round of graduations, celebrations, and fancy dinners. Like everybody else, I drank my share of toasts and wine at dinner, but I never really thought too much about that. It wasn’t more than just a few drinks per night—and I certainly never binged or anything like that.
I mean, the doctor seemed pretty extreme when he said “zero alcohol”. I’ve seen plenty of my friends drink through their pregnancy and have perfectly beautiful babies. So I decided I was pretty safe.
When Travis was born, he was everything I dreamed he’d be—until we started going to his monthly check-ups. He didn’t reach the same milestones as other children. He was uncoordinated when he tried to walk, had a hard time playing with other kids, and struggled to pay attention in school.
Then at one appointment, the physician said Travis had a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. My baby, so perfect to me, would never be the same kind of perfect as everybody else. And at that moment, my life was never the same again.
We all know that heavy alcohol use can be dangerous, but problems from alcohol consumption of any kind are even more severe during pregnancy. The primary risk of alcohol consumption to the unborn child is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs) are a group of conditions that can occur from alcohol use in pregnancy. These symptoms can include physical, mental, behavioral, and learning disorders with possible lifelong implications. Fetal Alcohol syndrome is the most severe of all Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.
HOW DOES ALCOHOL CAUSE FETAL ALCOHOL SPECTRUM DISORDERS?
When a woman drinks during pregnancy, the alcohol travels throughout her body and across the placenta. Because a fetus processes the alcohol much more slowly than the adult, a greater concentration of alcohol remains in the baby’s body and for greater periods of time than in the mother’s body. As a result, the baby’s blood alcohol concentrations will be much higher than that of the mother.
Alcohol interferes with the delivery of oxygen and nutrition to the fetus, affecting the growth of the developing tissues and organs, including the brain.
“Of all the substances of abuse (including cocaine, heroin and marijuana), alcohol produces by far the most serious neurobehavioral effects in the fetus.” Institute of Medicine, 1996.
WHAT ARE THE TYPES OF FETAL ALCOHOL SPECTRUM DISORDERS?
The types of FASDs depend on the severity and type of symptoms a child displays. Generally, FASDs is divided into three categories, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder, (ARND) and Alcohol-related Birth Defects (ARBD)
FETAL ALCOHOL SYNDROME (FAS)
- Abnormal facial features (smooth ridge between nose and upper lip)
- Small head size
- Shorter than average height
- Low body weight
- Vision or hearing problems
- Problems with the heart, kidneys, or bones
- Poor coordination
- Poor memory, judgment, and reasoning skills
- Difficulty in school, especially with math
- Speech and language delays
- Learning disabilities
ALCOHOL-RELATED NEURODEVELOPMENTAL DISORDER (ARND)
- Intellectual disabilities
- Problems with behavior and learning
- Difficulties with math, memory, attention, judgment
- Poor impulse control
ALCOHOL-RELATED BIRTH DEFECTS (ARBD)
- problems with heart, kidneys, bones,
- problems with vision or hearing
HOW PREVALENT IS FASD?
Alcohol is medically classified as a teratogen, a chemical that is capable of causing birth defects. Alcohol now recognized as the leading teratogen to which the fetus is likely to be exposed. Alcohol use among women of childbearing age is the leading preventable cause of birth defects and developmental disabilities in the United States.
IS THERE TREATMENT FOR FASD?
There is no cure for FASD, although research shows that early intervention services can improve a child’s development. Alcohol Spectrum Disorders are devastating, irreversible, and yet 100% preventable. One of the most vulnerable times during the fetus’s development is the first trimester, the time of critical organ development—and the time where most women are not aware that they are pregnant. To ensure the safety and well-being of your child, the Center of Disease Control and Prevention still recommend pregnant women not to drink alcohol at any time during pregnancy and says there is no known safe amount or safe kind of alcohol.
I made a mistake when I drank alcohol during my pregnancy with Travis, and I was determined never to make that mistake again. Our second and third children were as beautiful and normal as babies could be. I still wish I could rewind the clock and done things differently during those fatal months when I was carrying Travis, but now all I can hope for is that no other child in the world—mine or anybody’s else’s—should bear the effects of alcohol use for the rest of their life. All I can hope for is that all future mothers will act to prevent the effects of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
FACTS AND STATISTICS
- 1 in 100 babies have Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, nearly the same rate as Autism. FASD is more prevalent than Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, SIDS, Cystic Fibrosis, and Spina Bifida combined.
- Only about 40% of women realize that they are pregnant at 4 weeks of gestation, a critical period for organ development.
- 1 in 13 pregnant women continues to drink alcohol during pregnancy.
- Roughly 2.6 million infants suffer significant intrauterine alcohol exposure each year, with the treatment and care of these children (including services for profound mental retardation) incurring a national cost of $746 million annually.