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Text: Amanda Ndlangisa. Pictures: Gallo Images/Getty Images; Thinkstock. Article from the April 2012 issue of Bona Magazine.

Most mothers-to-be know that heavy drinking is dangerous to an unborn child’s health. But what about a glass of wine or a cocktail here and there?

Most mothers-to-be know that heavy drinking is dangerous to an unborn child's health. But what about a glass of wine or a cocktail here and there?The condition called Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) describes the many problems associated with exposure to alcohol before birth. Although most women are aware that heavy drinking during pregnancy can cause birth defects, many do not realise that light drinking may also harm the foetus.

According to FASfacts (a non-governmental organisation aimed at preventing FAS), when a pregnant woman drinks, the alcohol passes through the placenta to her foetus.

In the foetus’s immature body, alcohol is broken down much more slowly than in an adult’s body.

As a result, the alcohol level of the baby’s blood can be higher and remain elevated for longer than the level in the mother’s blood. This sometimes causes the baby to suffer lifelong damage.

What are the hazards of drinking alcohol during pregnancy?

FAS is one of the most commonly known causes of mental disability. The tragedy of babies with FAS is that it’s entirely preventable.

Babies with FAS are abnormally small at birth and don’t usually catch up on growth as they get older. They have characteristic facial features like small eyes, a thin upper lip and smooth skin in place of the normal groove between the nose and upper lip. Their organs, especially the heart, may not form properly.

Many babies with FAS also have a brain that is small and abnormally formed. Most have some degree of mental disability.

Some have poor co-ordination, a short attention span and emotional and behavioural problems.

The effects of FAS last a lifetime. Even if not mentally disabled, both adolescents and adults who were born with FAS are at risk of displaying psychological problems and criminal behaviour. They often find it difficult to keep a job or live independently.

Drinking alcohol also increases the risk for miscarriage and premature birth. Some studies suggest that drinking during pregnancy may contribute to stillbirth.

When is your baby exposed to greatest risk?

Although there’s risk throughout pregnancy, the first trimester is when the baby’s brain, spinal cord, heart and liver start to develop.

It’s a time of active cell division and the cells are particularly sensitive to the effects of alcohol.

Alcohol can also have highly negative effects during the last two trimesters of pregnancy (from the third to the ninth month). During this period, the unborn baby grows rapidly and alcohol can negatively affect its growth, causing low birth weight and retarded early development.

So how much is too much?

No level of drinking alcohol has been proven safe during pregnancy. The patterns of drinking that place a baby at greatest risk for FAS are binge drinking. However, FAS can occur in babies of women who drink less.

Some studies also suggest that drinking during pregnancy may contribute to stillbirth.

  • So how much is to much?One or two a week  A 2002 study found that 14-year-old children whose mothers had as little as one drink a week were significantly shorter and leaner and had a smaller head circumference (a possible indicator of brain size) than children of women who did not drink at all. A celebratory glass of alcohol is probably fine, but never consume more than a glass at a time or drink to the point of getting drunk.
  • Frequent drinking (seven or more alcoholic drinks per week, including wine and beer) or binge drinking (four or more drinks at a time) greatly increases the risk that your baby will suffer from FAS.

Remember: There is no cure or treatment for FAS. All your doctor can do is refer you to a therapist for counselling.

Coping and support

The psychological and emotional problems associated with FAS can be difficult to manage. Ask your doctor or nurse for local sources of support for families and children with FAS.

If you know or suspect you have a problem with alcohol or other substances, ask a doctor or a psychologist for advice.

As a parent of a child with foetal alcohol syndrome, you may find the following suggestions helpful in dealing with behavioural problems associated with the syndrome:

  • Implement daily routines which your child can become comfortable with.
  • Use rewards to reinforce acceptable behaviour.
  • Because many children with FAS are vulnerable, guard against their being taken advantage of by others.
  • Teach your child skills for daily living.
  • Carefully choose who you ask to care for your child when you can’t be there, because some behaviours may be difficult to manage.
  • A stable, nurturing home is the single most important factor in protecting children with FAS from some of the problems they’re at risk of developing later in life, including drug abuse and dropping out of school.
  • If you’ve given birth to a child with FAS, you may benefit from substance abuse counselling and treatment programmes that can help you overcome your misuse of alcohol.

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