Alcohol and Pregnancy – Why no alcohol is the best choice
During pregnancy mums-to-be and their partners, receive advice from many sources on how to have a healthy pregnancy. It can seem overwhelming. Thankfully, the main message on alcohol and pregnancy is a simple one. Alcohol and Pregnancy Don’t Mix.
Medical experts recommend that if you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all to keep the risks to your baby to a minimum.
Drinking increases the risk of miscarriage, premature birth and your baby having a low birth weight. It also increases the risk of your baby being born with a group of problems known as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and a range of impairments known as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).
Drinking in pregnancy can lead to long-term harm to the baby — the more you drink, the greater the risk.
Alcohol is a teratogen. Teratogen’s are substances that are known to be harmful to a developing foetus. Because the foetus is in a constant state of growth, there is no safe amount or type of alcohol during any stage of pregnancy. When alcohol is consumed during pregnancy, the alcohol in the woman’s blood passes through the placenta directly into the developing baby’s blood. The baby does not have a fully developed liver so it can’t filter out the toxins as an adult can. This can result in damage to the developing brain cells and nervous system at any stage of pregnancy. The impact can range from mild to severe and may include attention and learning difficulties, reduced intellectual ability, developmental delays and sensory issues. FASD is the umbrella term for a wide range of conditions that includes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS).
Many women are pregnant for a few weeks before they know. If this happens to you don’t panic. The risks to the baby are likely to be low. Drinking alcohol does not mean the foetus will definitely be harmed. Once you know you’re pregnant, don’t take anymore alcohol for the rest of the pregnancy. This reduces the risk to the baby and is better for both you and your baby.
Men can make a difference by supporting women during pregnancy, including supporting her choice to avoid alcohol. Dads-to-be can make a significant contribution during pregnancy to support mum-to-be with staying on a healthy path by taking a ‘pregnant pause’ themselves from alcohol for the nine months and beyond.
Some women may have difficulty reducing their drinking while pregnant without support from a specialist service. If you feel you need help it is very important to talk to your G.P, Midwife or Consultant to get proper support to start cutting down in a way that is safe for you and your baby. You can also contact the HSE Drugs and Alcohol Helpline who can direct you to a range of services across the country. This confidential, non-judgmental service has both a Freephone Helpline (1800 459 459) and an email support service (firstname.lastname@example.org). Opening hours are Monday to Friday, 9.30am and 5.30pm.
If you are diagnosed, or suspect you or your child are affected by FASD, you can find support through the Facebook group for families and people living with FASD @FASDAllianceIreland.
Frequently Asked Questions:
What is FASD?
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder can be caused if a woman drinks alcohol during pregnancy. FASD is the greatest cause of developmental delay in children. FASD is an umbrella term that includes a wide range of conditions that result from alcohol use during pregnancy. These conditions include Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorders (ARND) and partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS).
When a pregnant woman drinks, the alcohol in her blood passes freely through the placenta into the developing baby’s blood. Because the foetus does not have a fully developed liver, it cannot filter out the toxins from the alcohol as an adult can. Instead, the alcohol enters directly into the baby’s blood system. It can damage the developing brain cells and the nervous system of the baby at any stage of pregnancy.
How many people are affected in Ireland?
In order for a FASD diagnosis to be confirmed, it needs to be possible to say with confidence that the baby was exposed to alcohol while in the womb. This makes getting a diagnosis difficult and antenatal clinics do not test for alcohol. FASD is known as a “hidden disability” because most individuals affected by a FASD are not diagnosed until adolescence, adulthood, if at all. School-aged children with fetal alcohol-related problems are usually only identified when they are referred for a learning disability or an attention deficit disorder. If clinicians can identify a FASD early, intervention approaches can minimize the potential impact and prevent secondary disabilities.
There is no Irish register capturing the number of people affected by a FASD, therefore the number of cases of FASD, FAS and ARND (Alcohol Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder) in Ireland is not definitively known. FASD is also commonly misdiagnosed or unconfirmed. It shares many similarities with other disorders for example, attention deficit disorder. Irish studies on alcohol consumption during pregnancy, however, suggest the number of affected children in Ireland may be significant.
In January 2017, the Lancet published a review of alcohol consumption in pregnancy, the risk of FAS and the prevalence of people with FAS in the population and estimated that for Ireland, about 600 babies with FAS are born each year and that over 40,000 Irish people have FAS. This is the best estimate currently available.
Can FASD be cured?
No. The problems caused by FASD are permanent and irreversible. Diagnosing and treating the symptoms early can help a child affected by them to manage better. Children and families living with FASD need access to services and professionals as early as possible to ensure that the effects of the FASD are addressed and the proper supports are made available to help.
What effect does alcohol have?
The disorders that result from alcohol use during pregnancy can range from mild to severe and may include attention and learning difficulties, reduced intellectual ability, and developmental delays. They may develop difficulties with impulse control or emotional regulation. If not offered the appropriate support they may experience serious behavioural and social difficulties that last a lifetime.
Although the development of cells and organs can be affected, the brain and nervous systems are particularly vulnerable. The potential impact for babies born with FASD which include:
- Attention deficits
- Memory deficits
- Difficulties socialising and forming or maintaining relationships
- Organ damage
- Damage to the structure of the brain
- Have a slow cognitive pace – 10 second kids in 1 second world
- Sensory difficulties – oversensitivity to touch, smells, tastes, sounds, light etc.