In honor April being Alcohol Awareness Month, I thought it might be useful to get some information about fetal alcohol syndrome/spectrum out to our RMB community. I frequently take panicked calls and visits from newly expecting mothers who may have had a few drinks before they discovered they were pregnant.
The good news is, although it is not really known exactly how much alcohol causes a developing infant harm, and while some women may drink heavily during pregnancy and have an infant who does not have fetal alcohol syndrome, a glass of wine or a few drinks very early in pregnancy, before a woman has realized she is pregnant, is not likely to cause fetal alcohol syndrome if the woman does not continue to drink regularly for the remainder of her pregnancy.
Fetal alcohol syndrome was first described in France in the late 1960s and is the most common known cause of mental retardation. Alcohol has many toxic effects to developing tissues, and the placenta (the main organ that supplies oxygen and nutrients to the baby) is a direct route for alcohol to the baby, so the alcohol the mother drinks goes immediately through the bloodstream to the child. It can also linger in the amniotic fluid well after consumption, continuing to cause damage.
Fetal alcohol syndrome is also associated with distinctive facial features, growth retardation/low birth weight, developmental delay, attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder, impulsivity, etc. As mentioned above, there is a spectrum, and children who are affected can display a variety of these symptoms, depending on their exposure to alcohol in the womb. Although there aren’t any specific lab or imaging tests that can diagnose fetal alcohol syndrome, specialists can use physical findings and other types of tests to help formally diagnose the disorder.
There is no cure for fetal alcohol syndrome, and the only treatments we have are those that help manage some of the symptoms, such as counseling and medications for ADD/ADHD.
There is no known safe level of exposure to alcohol for developing babies, so if you are planning on conceiving, the best thing to do is avoid alcoholic beverages, and if you discover you’re pregnant after having a few drinks, don’t fret! Just stay alcohol-free the rest of your pregnancy.