Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

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AN avid reader wrote to me, telling me that her neighbour is pregnant but is still drinking alcohol heavily. She says they both read my column (thanks for that) so maybe some education on the harms of this may help.

I’m actually not very surprised to learn that expectant parents do not know the harms that alcohol may cause because it is not something that is taught in schools. I hope this piece brings awareness, acceptance and prevention of these harms.

Drinking alcohol while pregnant puts your unborn child at a high risk of developing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). FAS is a medical condition that a child develops through alcohol exposure while in the womb. This means when the pregnant mother consumes alcohol. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy results in damage to both the brain and body of the child. While it would take frequent consumption for FAS to occur, there are no safe amounts of alcohol to drink during pregnancy.

What are the signs of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?
There are numerous physical deformities and mental illnesses associated with FAS.
Physically, a baby born with FAS will have a small head, small and wide-set eyes and very thin upper lips. They would be below-average birth weight and height. In the womb, a baby does not have a fully developed liver and therefore cannot process the alcohol that can easily spread and damage vital organs. They often present with heart, kidney or limb problems. Heart murmurs and seizure disorders are also possibilities.

During development, there would be issues with sight and hearing as well as thought processing, impulse control and judgement. There will be learning and memory disabilities fuelled by hyperactivity, poor concentration, intellectual disability and low motivation. All of the above affects their ability to properly communicate, have normal social skills and form healthy relationships.

All of the above symptoms affect mental health. Any change in routine causes an unusual amount of stress. There is depression and anxiety if the condition is severe. Many social issues such as legal problems, inappropriate sexual behaviour and drug use are also common in those with FAS. This usually results in school drop-out or unemployment. Unfortunately, the symptoms of FAS tend to get worse as the child ages. Please also keep in mind that heavy drinking during pregnancy can increase the chances of a miscarriage altogether.

Please keep in mind that it is also dangerous to consume alcohol while breastfeeding/nursing a baby. It may not cause FAS but it may affect their sleep/wake pattern as well as slow down weight and motor development gain.

How is FAS developed? 
Through the mother, the alcohol reaches the baby through the placenta, the organ that is supposed to only nourish the baby. Therefore, you can prevent FAS by not consuming alcohol during pregnancy.

Basically, the alcohol that is absorbed by the fetus prevents sufficient nutrition and even oxygen from getting to its vital organs. If you are planning to become pregnant, it is beneficial to stay off of alcohol completely as you could not know when conception actually happens. While any amount of alcohol is dangerous during pregnancy, studies show that consuming alcohol during the first three months pregnancy is the most dangerous.
Of course, the intensity of FAS will depend on what, how much and how often alcohol is consumed. Studies also show that if the pregnant mother is over age 35, smoking cigarettes and has a poor diet, the child is more likely to develop FAS.

If you believe that your child may have FAS, there are a few things you can look for.
1. Alcohol was consumed during pregnancy, especially during the first three months
2. They have abnormal facial features such as those mentioned above
3. They have a growth deficiently – are they much smaller than those their age?
4. Do they have any central nervous system damage?
If the child has three or more out of the following 4 criteria, it is strongly recommended that they go into their nearest health centre.

How is FAS treated? 
FAS cannot be cured but can be managed. The earlier the diagnosis is made, the more progress can be made.
Prescription medications may be beneficial as it lowers existing and additional symptoms which include aggression, lack of focus/attention, inability to sleep or eat well, anxiety or depression. Physical therapy and early intervention also appear to lower the degree of FAS.
Counselling has been proven beneficial for those with FAS. Counselling and behavioural training that focuses on social skills, coping skills, lowering stress and anger management are a great help to the affected individual.

Alternative, home treatments such as exercise, herbal supplements, relaxation therapies, yoga and massages have also proven effective. Creative art sessions have shown to help with attention, aggression and lowering stress overall.

Those with FAS can live at home with their families but a large percentage requires dependent living which means inpatient treatment in a group centre or home. Seeing as though every child is different, it is also recommended that you schedule an appointment at your nearest health centre to discuss the best way to deal with your specific case.
If a child has developed FAS, studies show that there are a few protective factors that reduce the secondary symptoms of the condition. These include being diagnosed at an early age, living in a healthy, non-violent home, having a hobby such as art or music and participating in community activities.

There is a fear that admission of consuming alcohol during pregnancy and breastfeeding can result in shame, guilt or judgement. Do not let that fear stop you from reaching out for help. Please go to your nearest health centre if you feel your child is at risk for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

Thank you for reading and please send in any topics to caitlinvieira@gmail.com.
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