In Ireland, September marks FASD Awareness Month and on the 9th September each year, International Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (IFASD) Awareness Day is commemorated and has been done so since 1999.
The aim is to raise awareness of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) and highlight a range of conditions that can affect an unborn baby when a pregnant woman consumes alcohol, as well as the importance of remaining alcohol-free during pregnancy. Essential resources and support for those affected by FASD are also provided.
Latest figures show that up to 7.4% of the population in Ireland could suffer from FASD. What’s more, it’s estimated that women who drink during pregnancy have a 1 in 67 risk of giving birth to a child with FAS (Foetal Alcohol Syndrome) and a 1 in 13 risk of FASD.
The best available evidence estimates that around 600 Irish babies are born each year with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, and that approximately 6,000 babies are born annually in Ireland with other Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD).
While the guidance concerning alcohol consumption is clear – no amount of alcohol is safe when you are expecting a baby – for women struggling with alcohol misuse, pregnancy can be an incredibly challenging time, requiring additional support and guidance.
What’s more, two in five pregnancies in Ireland are unplanned, increasing the chances that the embryo and foetus will be exposed to alcohol, as many women don’t know they are pregnant in the early weeks.
Here, we explore Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and why it’s not safe for pregnant women to drink alcohol.
Everything you need to know about Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder
Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) can occur when a pregnant woman consumes alcohol during pregnancy, leading to complications in foetal development.
When a person consumes alcohol, it is broken down by the liver, and a proportion of the drug and its metabolites are released into the bloodstream. In pregnant women, alcohol can be passed from the mother’s bloodstream to the baby via the placenta.
An unborn baby cannot process alcohol well. This can lead to developmental problems in the womb, and irreversible damage to a baby’s brain and body.
Babies born with FASD can have permanent mental and physical health concerns including (but not limited to) issues with hearing, vision, and speech, learning difficulties, and problems with organs, bones, joints, and muscles.
FASD is a lifelong condition and there are more than 400 health conditions associated with prenatal alcohol exposure. Many babies won’t show any symptoms at birth. Despite this, early diagnosis can help ensure that both the mother and family receive the support they need, and that the needs of a child with FASD can be met, including via appropriate healthcare and education.
Forms of FASD include:
- Foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) – the most severe form of FASD caused by drinking during pregnancy. FAS can cause facial abnormalities, learning and mental disabilities, and problems with growth and the central nervous system.
- Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND) – this can result in problems with impulse control, memory/attention span and learning and behavioural difficulties.
- Partial foetal alcohol syndrome (PFAS) – resulting in central nervous system and growth problems.
- Alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD) – this can include hearing defects, as well as problems with the heart, kidneys, and bones.
Alcohol and pregnancy
National guidance on alcohol consumption in pregnancy is clear – there is no safe amount of alcohol that a woman can drink while expecting a baby, without posing significant risk to foetal development.
Drinking alcohol, even in low or moderate amounts, can also increase the risk of miscarriage, premature birth, or low-birth weight. For these reasons, pregnant women are advised to avoid alcohol altogether. As of 2017, analysis of alcohol use in pregnancy showed that Ireland had one of the highest rates of all countries studied.
For women who are struggling with alcohol misuse, there are many resources available to support both them and their families throughout pregnancy and beyond. These include FASD Ireland and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
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