September 9 is International Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Awareness Day and parents have been asking me questions about just what fetal alcohol syndrome is and whether or not their children might have it.  Let me give birth to some information on this topic. 

It turns out that alcohol is the leading preventable cause of mental and physical birth defects in the United States. It is also a leading cause of miscarriage and stillbirths. So what are the features that occur with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders? 

There is not one classic feature common to all babies born when a mother drinks alcohol. Most babies affected may show low birth weight or a smaller head, developmental delay and poor weight gain, seizures and other neurologic problems, and have facial abnormalities including smaller eye openings, flattened cheekbones, and an underdeveloped groove between the nose and upper lip. 

Children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders can have learning problems, behavioral problems, and poor socializing skills. As adults, they tend to get in trouble with the law, develop mental health problems, and have difficulty living independently. 

The best way to avoid fetal alcohol spectrum disorders from occurring is to not drink at all if you are pregnant, possibly pregnant, or even thinking about becoming pregnant. (That way, the effect of alcohol is not present as the newly conceived fetus develops.)

Data gathered in Vermont suggest that 70% of women who are pregnant reported drinking during the three months before knowing they were pregnant – and this can certainly result in problems early on in a pregnancy.  In fact, no one has determined a “safe amount” of alcohol to drink during pregnancy, since alcohol easily passes into the fetus.

We do know that mothers who do drink during the first trimester have babies with the most severe problems, because the newborn brain is developing.  That development continues throughout the second and third trimester, so the sooner a mother-to-be stops drinking, the better it will be for her baby and herself.  If you want further information about fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, call your local doctor. You can also call Vermont or New York 2-1-1, who can route you to the appropriate program or service.

Hopefully tips like this will allow you to drink up what you need to know so you don’t drink while pregnant or trying to have a baby.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.  You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and MyNBC 5, or visit the “First with Kids” video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

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