Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD)

Today, the 9th day of the 9th month representing the nine months of pregnancy, celebrates International FASD Awareness Day.  This time provides an opportunity to pause, reflect and consider the choice to have an alcohol free pregnancy and to share the message around the world.

FASD historically has been recognized since the mention of it in the bible. However, it wasn’t until the 1960’s that this disorder was first acknowledged in the medical community and it really wasn’t until the 1990’s that FASD began to receive attention from the scientific community.

So although the term Fetal Alcohol Syndrome may be familiar to many, what this term actually means is likely to be elusive to most, and yet, it is estimated that 3,500 Canadian children are born with FASD each year.

blog8Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is actually an umbrella term that refers to a lifelong disability resulting from exposure to alcohol prenatally, or prior to birth (Institute of Health Economics, 2006). One of the most detrimental aspects of this disorder is the damaging effect of alcohol on the developing brain cells of a fetus. The brain damage caused by alcohol can result in several difficulties starting in early childhood. For example, children with FASD may show delays in development, clumsiness, poor hand-eye coordination, and difficulties with sensory processing, seizures and hearing loss.

blog9As these children enter school their struggle continues, as individuals with FASD often have difficulties with learning, memory, communication, attention, math skills, judgement and impulse control. These difficulties can make sitting in a classroom and keeping up with peers extremely challenging and alienating. Futher more, individuals with FASD may have difficulties with relating to others and perceiving social situations, therefore their social life may be negatively impacted.

In addition to the detrimental effects associated with brain damage, prenatal exposure to alcohol can cause physical deformities. For example, individuals with FASD are often significantly below average height and weight, which can result in health complications as they continue to develop. Finally, some individuals with FASD display facial abnormalities, often in the mouth and eye areas.

All of these effects from prenatal exposure to alcohol lead to a lifetime of treatment and management of care for the child. In fact, it is estimated that each child with FASD procures over 2 million dollars in treatment costs over the course of their life. This results in an estimated cumulative of $600 billion dollars in lifelong treatment costs for those currently living with FASD, according to the Institute of Health Economics Consensus Statement on FASD – Across the Lifespan.

As is evident from the numerous indicators of FASD listed above, alcohol exposure to a fetus can have irreversible, significantly detrimental, lifelong effects on a child. So, is it ever safe to dring alcohol while pregnant? The easiest answer is NO!

There is no safe time for pregnant women to drink alcohol, there are no safe amounts to drink when pregnant and all drinks containing alcohol can be harmful.

blog11Research has shown that the severity of damage depends on the amount and pattern of alcohol use during pregnancy. For example, the facial abnormalities are only likely to occur if alcohol is consumed between day 19 and day 21 in the pregnancy. However, the brain continues to develop through out pregnancy therefore, alcohol could cause brain damage to the fetus at any point in time. Research has also shown binge drinking can be particularly devastating on the developing fetus, but even small amounts af alcohol can cause damage. Given the insurmountable damages that alcohol can cause on a child we hope that the take home message is to abstain from all alcohol during pregnancy.

Nine months free of alcohol is worth the lifetime of a healthy child.


Watch for one mother’s journey raising a child with FASD in our upcoming blog series by Julie Folland.