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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

If you have been told by your doctor to avoid alcohol during pregnancy then it is for a very good reason. It is because alcohol is known to cross the placental barrier and cause adverse effects to a developing fetus. A baby in the womb, especially in its early stages, is simply not sufficiently developed to be able to deal with alcohol entering its body, which it would, via the bloodstream.


The danger of alcohol

Alcohol is toxic, and it is by means of the liver that we rid our bodies of it so that it does not do damage. The problem for a developing fetus in the womb is that its liver is not completely formed for quite some time so it doesn’t have the means to detoxify and metabolize alcohol fast enough. This leads to a build-up of alcohol in the blood and all manner of disturbances to the baby’s development, with the severity depending largely on the amount of alcohol consumed by the mother and the stage of the pregnancy. It is in the early stages that the infant would be most vulnerable.

There is a whole host of possible anomalies that can occur in a developing baby exposed to alcohol via its mother’s bloodstream, and they can be quite serious and include brain damage or incomplete brain development. This can lead to:

  • learning difficulties
  • poor memory
  • inability to grasp instructions
  • poor problem solving
  • behavioral problems in a child as it gets older.

The white matter of the brain is especially sensitive at an early stage of the pregnancy. Six to nine weeks into the pregnancy is a high risk period for deformities to the face of a developing baby since this is the period during which the normal facial features are becoming formed.

Some of the typical features of a baby affected with fetal alcohol syndrome are:

  • a small head
  • small, narrow eyes
  • thin upper lip
  • a weak immune system
  • hearing problems
  • problems in the face or teeth
  • epilepsy
  • kidney and heart defects
  • liver damage
  • cerebral palsy
  • reduced growth rate
  • hormonal disorders.

There may be just one or two, or several of these features present in a baby at birth, or they may only become apparent as time goes by and an abnormality is noticed. Poor hearing, for example is not able to be properly tested before a certain age.

Government advice is for women to avoid alcohol completely even if they are just thinking of getting pregnant because it’s just not worth the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, and low birth weight, or any of the many deformities or incapacities that can affect your baby as he or she grows. It is disturbing that, even in this enlightened age; fetal alcohol syndrome can affect one in every five hundred babies born in the Western world.

Children with FAS and FASD tend to be referred to community paediatricians for investigations and treatments as appropriate. These may include specific organ operations and general psychiatric and/or speech therapy.

It has to be stressed that there is no safe level of alcohol for a woman who is, or expects to be pregnant, to consume. Larger amounts of alcohol constitute a greater risk, and binge drinking is likely to be much more harmful than drinking a few glasses of wine.