September 9 is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Awareness Day, and parents have been asking me questions about just what fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are and whether or not their children might have one. Let me give birth to some information on this topic.
Alcohol is the leading preventable cause of mental and physical birth defects in the United States, and it is also a leading cause of miscarriage and stillbirths. Studies suggest 40,000 babies are born each year with problems as a result of a pregnant mother drinking during her pregnancy, resulting in what we call fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
What are the features that occur with these disorders? While 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, and have facial abnormalities including smaller eye openings, flattened cheekbones, a flattened nasal bridge, and/or an underdeveloped faint groove between the nose and upper lip. Children with fetal alcohol syndrome can go on to have learning problems, behavioral problems, and poor socializing skills with others as they get older. 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 so the effect of alcohol is not present as the newly conceived fetus develops. Mothers who do drink during the first trimester have babies with the most severe problems, as this is the time the newborn brain is most rapidly developing, although it continues to develop in the second and third trimesters as well so there is really no safe time, safe amount, or safe type of alcohol to drink during pregnancy. Mothers who are binge drinkers or have a problem with chronic alcohol use put their children at the highest risk. 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, or the health and human services hotlines for Vermont or New York by dialing 2-1-1, which can also route you to the appropriate program or service.
Hopefully tips like this will convince you not to drink if you are pregnant or trying to have a baby.
Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives.