These days, most people know that alcohol and pregnancy are not a good mix. Still, some wonder if it’s okay to drink a small amount during pregnancy. How seriously could alcohol affect your baby?
Doctors and midwives advise pregnant women not to drink any alcohol at all. If a mother drinks during pregnancy, her baby may develop fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). About one per cent of Canadians are permanently damaged by this disorder.
FAS lasts a lifetime. It can affect many different parts of the baby’s body, including the face, eyes, bones, heart, and kidneys. People with FAS may look different from other people, and can have health problems and poor eyesight.
Most important, FAS damages the brain. When the child goes to school, there are usually major learning problems. FAS causes poor attention, memory problems, social problems and difficulty with language. Most people with FAS do not finish school. They are also troubled adults, since solving problems and learning new things is challenging. They can find it very hard to understand the results of what they do, and so often make poor choices.
Raising a child with FAS is very hard for the parents and everyone else in the family. As an adult, brain damage from FAS may cause serious problems with work, money and relationships. Many end up in jail, homeless, or with addiction problems. Some can never live alone.
As the effects of FAS are so serious and last so long, it is best to avoid the risk of FAS by completely avoiding alcohol during pregnancy.
Doctors can check whether a child has FAS in several ways. Sometimes just looking at the child provides clues, since the face and eyes can be affected. Babies with FAS are often small when they are born. Children with FAS may have a thin upper lip and a slightly flat nose. Often the usual groove between their nose and mouth is missing. They may have a small chin, small eyes, or an extra fold of skin near their eyes.
These differences are hard to see in newborns and adults. They are easier to see in children from eight months to eight years of age. Often learning and behavior problems are noticed around the same time, so it is common for FAS to be diagnosed during this period.
If your child has FAS, ask your doctor about programs that will help with your child’s special learning needs. This gives your child the best chance at having a normal life.
People often ask how much alcohol it takes to cause FAS. The answer is that it can be different for each woman. A few can have one or more drinks of alcohol every day during pregnancy, and their babies seem fine. Others drink only a small amount, and still have a baby born with FAS. Less than half a drink per day can cause FAS. It may have something to do with how the mother’s body processes alcohol. A woman who has one child with FAS and drinks again in her next pregnancy has a 77 per cent chance of having a second baby with FAS. So women who have had a child with FAS seem to be more sensitive to the effects of alcohol in pregnancy.
As the safe amount of alcohol seems to be different for each woman, and you have no way to know how much is safe for you, it is best not to have any at all. Even a few drinks can cause the lifelong problems of FAS for your child.
One out of four women drinks alcohol during pregnancy. Some women drink alcohol at the beginning, before finding out they are pregnant. They may stop drinking as soon as they have a positive pregnancy test, but worry about whether they have harmed the baby. Others drink even after they know they are pregnant, because they do not know how harmful it is or think a small amount is safe.
If this is true for you, try not to worry. It is too late to change what has already happened. The best thing you can do now is to avoid alcohol for the rest of your pregnancy. Studies show that no matter how far along you are, your baby will benefit if you stop drinking now. It may ease your mind to know that in most cases where the amount of alcohol was small, the baby is fine. If you still have concerns, ask your family doctor to check for signs of FAS as your child grows.
What if you are not pregnant yet, but you are trying to get pregnant? Remember, even when you do get pregnant, you will not know for certain until several weeks (or more) have gone by. These first few weeks of pregnancy are very important. For instance, the baby’s face starts to form around the 18th day, when many women do not know they are pregnant yet. So if you are trying to get pregnant (or even if you are sexually active and not using good birth control), stop drinking now. Do not wait for a positive pregnancy test. After all, you might already be pregnant, and just not know it yet!
If you are pregnant or planning pregnancy, and need help to stop drinking (or smoking or using other drugs), talk to your doctor or midwife. We all want you to have a healthy baby, and there are a lot of ways we can help.