Whatever you eat or drink is shared with your baby. Foods and liquids pass from you to your baby through the placenta. So a mother needs to ensure that she is passing nutritious foods during pregnancy to her baby.

Similarly, if a baby is exposed to harmful substances during pregnancy, then this can have detrimental effects. One of these harmful substances is alcohol. Every year on September 9, International foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) Awareness Day is observed. 

People all around the world gather for events to raise awareness about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy and the plight of individuals and families who struggle with FASD.  Foetal alcohol spectrum disorders are a group of conditions that can occur in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. These effects can include physical problems as well as problems with behaviour and learning.

Many studies show that drinking alcohol during pregnancy has health effects on both the mother and baby. During pregnancy, alcohol quickly travels through the bloodstream, crosses the placenta and reaches the baby. The baby breaks down alcohol more slowly than an adult, and so it may end up with a high level of blood alcohol.

Alcohol also persists in high levels in the baby’s blood for a longer period of time than it does in adults. Drinking alcohol at low to moderate levels during pregnancy is associated with miscarriage, stillbirth, prematurity and a range of reproductive difficulties. Alcohol exposure is unsafe for developing babies at every stage of pregnancy. There is no safe type of alcoholic beverage. Red wine is no safer than white wine, beer, cocktails or mixed drinks, since all contain alcohol.

Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder is totally avoidable

There is no evidence that FASD is hereditary. A woman with FASD is not at greater risk of having a child with FASD unless she consumes alcohol during pregnancy. There are no known genetic factors that are linked to a child being exposed during pregnancy or how much they will be affected.

However, research, which is ongoing in this area, shows that some factors play a role in how severe the effects of alcohol are on a developing baby. These include the amount of drinks a pregnant woman consumes, how often she drinks and when she drinks.

The evidence is clear. Exposure to alcohol during pregnancy can result in lifelong FASDs. It is also well known that FASDs do not occur if alcohol is not consumed during pregnancy. There is no safe level of alcohol and it is well established that alcohol has the potential to cause both adverse pregnancy outcomes and FASDs. Therefore it is highly advised that women should abstain from alcohol when pregnant.

This advice also applies to women trying to become pregnant, as damage can occur in the earliest weeks of pregnancy, even before a woman knows she is pregnant. Different organs of the child are developing at all stages of pregnancy and therefore alcohol’s effects on a developing baby can result from alcohol use at any point during the pregnancy. Alcohol is a known neurotoxin, so since the brain develops throughout pregnancy, the developing brain and nervous system are always at risk.

FASDs usually last a lifetime. There is no cure for them, but research shows that early intervention treatment can improve a child’s development. There are many types of treatment options, including medication to help with some symptoms, behaviour and education therapy and parent training. No one treatment is the same for every child. These children need to be monitored closely and followed up. 

FASD is totally avoidable. One can avoid the syndrome by not drinking alcohol during pregnancy. If a woman has a drinking problem and wants to get pregnant, it is best to seek help. For social drinkers, don’t drink if you think you might become pregnant any time soon.

Men should also support the prevention of alcohol-related birth defects by understanding the risk of prenatal alcohol exposure, encouraging healthy behaviours and minimising or abstaining from alcohol themselves in support of the pregnant mother.

FASD features

A person with FASD might have these conditions: 
▪ Abnormal facial features, such as a smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip (this ridge is called the philtrum)
▪ Small head size
▪ Shorter-than-average height
▪ Low body weight
▪ Poor coordination
▪ Hyperactive behaviour
▪ Difficulty with attention
▪  Poor memory
▪ Difficulty in school 
▪ Learning disabilities
▪ Speech and language delays
▪ Intellectual disability or low IQ
▪ Poor reasoning and judgment skills
▪ Sleep and sucking problems as a baby
▪ Vision or hearing problems
▪ Problems with the heart, kidneys or bones

Prof. Charmaine Gauci is Superintendent of Public Health.