“Alcohol is more damaging for the unborn child than is heroin and cocaine.” So says Miguel del Campo, M.D., and Ph.D. from the Department of Pediatrics at UCSD in a recent address to the North County Chapter of Rady Children’s Hospital Auxiliary (RCHA). Alcohol causes more cellular damage in the brain than do the drugs.
Although most bodily development is in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, the brain is susceptible throughout the entire pregnancy. Even breast-feeding isn’t safe where alcohol is concerned. There is currently no way to know if damage will occur and how much alcohol is needed for the destruction. For that reason, NO ALCOHOL is recommended at any time during pregnancy. Even one drink can be dangerous!
The object here is to prevent Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Spectrum Disorders (FASD). Infants born with this disorder may have less brain volume, a small short stature, trouble gaining weight, a small head, and abnormal functioning of the brain and possible nerve damage.
This nerve damage can lead to hearing loss, speech impediment, lack of hand and eye coordination and problems with judgment. Once acquired, there is no cure for this. School will likely be a difficult environment for the child that survives. Intelligence may be lessened and there can be behavior problems including Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) although there may be no evidence in the physical features. This is different from Autism Spectrum disorder.
Dr. del Campo says that beer and wine are just as dangerous as whiskey, gin and tequila. Alcohol damages the brain with greater long-term effects than does narcotics. FASD affects six to nine out of every 1000 children. He notes that while there is no trait for this passed on by the father, the father who drinks alcohol has been shown to have a lowered fertility. Dr. del Campo states that, “Any dose of alcohol affects the unborn child”. How much depends on how the alcohol is absorbed and metabolized in the body. Maternal age, nutrition and vitamin status can also influence the effect of alcohol on the fetus. Individuals with FASD often function developmentally at a level about half their chronological age.
This is supported by the Institute of Medicine, which says, “Of all the substances of abuse (including cocaine, heroin, and marijuana), alcohol produces by far the most serious neuro-behavioral effects in the fetus.” In addition to the nerve and brain damage described above, there may also be problems with the heart, kidneys, bones, hearing, vision or any mix of them. The solution here is simple. DO NOT DRINK EVEN ONE ALCOHOLIC DRINK WHILE PREGNANT OR NURSING.
Because alcohol is legal, it can be a sensitive subject to talk about. Kathleen Mitchell, spokesperson for the National Organization of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS) said, “In over twenty years of working on FASD prevention, I have never met a mom who intentionally wanted to harm her unborn baby. Either she didn’t know that alcohol was harmful during pregnancy or she needed help to stop drinking.”
Even though FASD can’t be cured, it is important to identify it as soon as possible and provide interventions for self-regulation and social skills training. Unfortunately there is a lack of expertise in many physicians for diagnosing this condition because sometimes there are no physical symptoms. Funding is needed for training pediatricians and obstetricians. Family and school supports are important and will need to be maintained into adulthood. When working with these individuals, it is important to be consistent, use repetition and create simple, specific routines. They will need structure and supervision.
We are fortunate in having some excellent resources in San Diego County. They include diagnostic and support services, client referrals, substance abuse helps, genetic testing and others. For referrals contact Kathie Johnson at 858-246-0047 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A final note – FASDs are completely preventable if a woman does not drink alcohol during pregnancy. Finger pointing does not help. The goal is to get the help and support to the infant and family as soon as possible.