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Alcohol and Pregnancy

Alcohol and Pregnancy

Alcohol could have different effects at different times during pregnancy and it might effect one baby differently to another.

What we do know for sure is that Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) is 100% preventable providing no alcohol is consumed during pregnancy. We also know that the damage exposure to alcohol before birth can cause to babies is irreversible.

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What is FASD?

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) can be caused if a woman drinks alcohol during pregnancy. THERE IS NO OTHER WAY THAT THIS CONDITION CAN BE CAUSED.

FASD is an umbrella term that covers Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), Alcohol Related Neurodevelopment Disorders (ARND), Alcohol Related Birth Defects (ARBD) and partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS)

When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, the alcohol in her blood passes freely through the placenta into the developing baby’s blood.

Because the baby does not have a fully developed liver, it cannot filter out the toxins from the alcohol like an adult can do. Instead, the alcohol circulates in the baby’s blood system and in doing so it can destroy brain cells and damage

The baby’s developing nervous system at any point during the 9 months of pregnancy.

What effect does alcohol have?

The effects can be mild or severe, ranging from reduced intellectual ability and attention problems to heart problems and even death. Many children experience serious behavioural and social difficulties that last for their whole lifetime.

Although alcohol can affect the development of cells, organs and systems, the brain and nervous system are particularly vulnerable.

We aren’t able to see the brain damage that is caused by FASD, however there are a number of ‘invisible’ characteristics in babies born with FASD. These include:

  • Difficulty in concentration
  • Memory problems
  • Hyperactivity
  • Difficulty in some abstract concepts (arithmetic, telling time and handling money)
  • Poor problem solving skills
  • Difficulty in learning from consequences
  • Confused social skills

Alongside this, there are sometimes physical symptoms that a baby can be born with including:

  • Smaller head circumference
  • Heart problems
  • Limb damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Damage to the structure of the brain
  • Eye problems
  • Hearing problems
  • Specific facial characteristics

How many people are affected?

The incidence of FASD in Northern Ireland (NI) as well as internationally, is not accurately known but is estimated to be 1 in every 100 births. In NI, this amounts to approximately 250 babies per year. Besides this estimation, many children who are born with FASD are not diagnosed, or do not receive the correct diagnosis, which makes calculating the rate of the condition extremely difficult.

So why do some women drink alcohol during pregnancy?

Women who are pregnant don’t necessarily drink alcohol to harm their baby intentionally. There are a number of reasons why some women might drink alcohol in pregnancy and these include:

  • They aren’t aware they are pregnant especially in the early weeks
  • Social pressures and cultural context
  • To cope with trauma problems, or stress
  • Not being aware of the risks of drinking alcohol during pregnancy

Because there is no proven safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy, the only way to be sure that alcohol will not affect a baby is to avoid alcohol completely during pregnancy, when trying to conceive and when breastfeeding.

What are the other risks?

Alcohol can have other effects besides causing FASD. It can reduce a woman’s chances of becoming pregnant and is also associated with an increased risk of infertility, miscarriage, premature labour and stillbirth.Alcohol can also affect a man’s fertility.

What should you do?

It’s never too late to stop drinking alcohol. If you need help to stop drinking alcohol or have any concerns or questions about pregnancy and alcohol contact your GP or midwife, or the organisations listed below.

If you are considering having a baby, it is also recommended that you stop drinking alcohol, to boost your chances of becoming pregnant.

Further Information

Public Health Agency – www.publichealth.hscni.net to view the local service directories for your area.
Alcohol and You – www.alcoholandyouni.com
FAS Aware UK – www.fasaware.co.uk
FASD Trust – www.fasdtrust.co.uk or call 016 0881 1599
NOFAS UK – www.nofas-uk.org or call 020 8458 5951

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