International Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Day takes place on 9 September every year so this month we are raising awareness about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy and the difficulty of families and individuals who live with foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD).
So, do you know what foetal alcohol syndrome is exactly? And, even more pressing, are you and your baby at risk? We’ve put together the 14 signs that your child could have foetal alcohol syndrome – and what treatment options exist out there.
What is foetal alcohol syndrome?
Foetal alcohol syndrome is a condition that’s caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy. As a direct result of alcohol consumption, the baby’s growth is affected because the liver (which is not yet fully developed) cannot filter out the toxins from the alcohol in the same way that adults can. After birth, the baby may have a whole range of physical, behavioural and neurological problems that will become more and more apparent as they grow older.
Up to 30% of women drink alcohol during pregnancy worldwide, resulting in some of their babies being born with foetal alcohol syndrome, while others might have alcohol related neuro-developmental disorder. Foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the most severe type of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs).
The World Health Organisation indicates that 1 in 100 children are born with a FASD worldwide. However, it is stated that the prevalence rate of FASD in South Africa is several times higher than elsewhere in the world. In fact, foetal alcohol syndrome is believed to affect at least three million people in South Africa, meaning that 20% of the population is affected by alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
How much alcohol can you drink when you’re pregnant?
Alcohol (such as wine, beer or hard liquor) has been found to be the leading cause of preventable birth defects and developmental disabilities in the world. However, the most common misconception about foetal alcohol syndrome is that it’s only caused when expectant mothers binge drink.
While the severity of the condition is thought to be related to how much alcohol is drank during pregnancy, campaigners believe that women should abstain from alcohol completely when pregnant as there is no ‘safe’ level of drinking.
Indeed, it’s no coincidence that International Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Day falls at 9:09 am on the ninth day of the ninth month (and was first launched in 1999). This date was picked specifically as a reminder that women should not drink any alcohol during the whole nine months of pregnancy. This is because the effects of drinking alcohol can make its mark even during the first few weeks of a pregnancy.
In short, foetal alcohol syndrome is 100% preventable if a woman doesn’t drink during pregnancy. If you’re struggling with an alcohol addiction and you’re pregnant, then talk to your doctor, midwife or pharmacist. Quitting at any point during your pregnancy can help in reducing the risk and severity of alcohol-related problems in your child.
14 symptoms of foetal alcohol syndrome
FAS might not be detected at birth, but instead becomes apparent later in life. There are many possible symptoms associated with foetal alcohol syndrome, as it covers such a wide range of problems. However, we’ve listed the 14 most common signs – both physical and behavioural:
- A head that’s smaller than average
- Below average height and weight
- A smooth ridge between the upper lip and nose
- A very thin upper lip
- Small and wide-set eyes
- Problems with sight or hearing
- Heart problems
- Kidney defects and abnormalities
- Deformed limbs or fingers
Invisible/ behavioural symptoms:
- Lack of focus or hyperactivity
- Poor coordination skills or trouble with movement>
- Delayed development and issues with speech, movement and social skills
- Mood swings
- Learning disabilities
What to do if you think your child has foetal alcohol syndrome:
If you recognise any of the symptoms in your child, and you drank while pregnant, then talk to your doctor, as the earlier the diagnosis, the better. People with undiagnosed FASD, who don’t receive proper support, are at a higher risk of developing secondary disabilities, such as disruptive behaviour at school, psychiatric issues and alcohol and drug-related dependencies.
A physical examination of the baby may reveal heart problems or a heart murmur. As the baby develops, there may be other symptoms that will help to confirm a diagnosis.
Treatment for foetal alcohol syndrome
While foetal alcohol syndrome is incurable, some symptoms do have available treatments, and an early diagnosis can make a world of difference. For example, if a toddler has been diagnosed with FAS and is slow in their speech development, speech therapists can work with them as soon as possible to help them learn to talk.
If a child with FAS is experiencing behavioural problems, then behavioural counselling can help. For example, executive function training can help in improving reasoning and self-control, while a tutor can help a child who requires academic help.
Of course, parents and siblings might also need support in dealing with the challenges that arise from the condition. This support is available via talk therapy or support groups. Parental training is also available, which helps parents learn how best to interact with and care for a child with FAS.
Topmed’s Maternity Programme gives you access to our in-house midwives will contact you on a regular basis during your pregnancy to offer advice, support and encouragement, and your health will be continuously monitored. To find out more about our Maternity Programme visit our website or contact us now.
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