Could You Be Harming Your Baby Before You Even Know You Are Pregnant?

Could You Be Harming Your Baby Before You Even Know You Are Pregnant?

The latest pregnancy-related news from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is that millions of US women are at risk of exposing their unborn child to alcohol and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. Plus, most don’t even know it.

How so?  They are drinking, having intercourse, and not using some form of birth control to prevent pregnancy.

Here’s the thing.  Alcohol can harm a developing baby before a woman knows she is pregnant. About half of all US pregnancies are unplanned. Moreover, even when they are planned, most women have no idea that they are pregnant until they are at least 4-6 weeks along.  This means a woman might be drinking and exposing her unborn child to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs) in utero before she even knows she is pregnant.

The basics

Here’s what you should know if you are pregnant, might be pregnant, or might become pregnant:

  • There is no known safe level of alcohol use during pregnancy or when trying to get pregnant. Any level of alcohol consumption can harm your unborn baby during any trimester of your pregnancy.
  • All types of alcohol can be harmful, even red and white wines, wine coolers and beer.
  • Your unborn baby’s brain, body, and organs are developing throughout pregnancy and can be affected by exposure to alcohol at any time.
  • Drinking while pregnant can also increase the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), premature delivery, miscarriage, and even stillbirth.
  • Prenatal alcohol exposure is the number one cause of birth defects and neurodevelopmental disabilities in children. Alcohol exposure is more harmful to an unborn baby than exposure to nicotine, opioids, marijuana, cocaine, and meth.
  • All of these adverse effects are 100% preventable.

Some troubling statistics

If you’re like me, you’re thinking this isn’t exactly new news.  Everybody already knows all about this, right?

Apparently not.  Here are some troubling statistics:

  • In surveys, about fifty percent of all childbearing age women in the US report drinking alcohol within the past thirty days. Nearly eight percent said they continued drinking while they were pregnant.
  • A recent study found increased risk of stunted infant growth even when a pregnant woman’s consumption was limited to just one drink per day. This translates to a single 1.5-ounce shot of liquor, five ounces of wine, or twelve ounces of beer.
  • The same study found that drinking in the first-trimester upped the chances of delivery a child with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs) by twelve times. Drinking in both the first and second trimesters increased the FASD odds by sixty-one times.  Women who drank during all three trimesters increased their child’s likelihood of FASD by a factor of sixty-five.

In other words, children born of women who drank throughout their pregnancy are sixty-five times more likely to develop FASDs than children whose mothers did not drink alcohol while pregnant.

  • The CDC estimates that 2-5% of American school children may have FASDs although some estimates put it closer to 15%.

What are Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs)?

FASD is an umbrella term used to describe a whole range disorders that can affect a person who was exposed to alcohol in the womb. The most common effects of these disorders are:

  • Structural or functional effects on the brain, heart, bones and spine, kidneys, vision and hearing
  • Higher incidence of hyperactivity and attention deficit disorders
  • Specific learning disabilities related to math and language, visual-spatial functioning, impulse control, information processing, memory, problem-solving, abstract thought and reasoning and auditory comprehension.

All of the above can lead to lifelong issues with school, maintaining social relationships, the ability to live independently, mental health, chronic substance abuse, maintaining employment, and trouble with the law.

There are three main types of FASDs:  Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopment Disorder (ARND), and Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBDs).

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

FAS is the broadest end of the FASD spectrum. The most extreme outcome of FAS is death.  Less severe outcomes are growth problems, difficulties with the central nervous system, and abnormal facial features.

People with FAS can also experience issues with memory, communication, learning, attention span, vision, or hearing. They are most likely to have a combination of these problems. Not surprisingly given the issues they experience, people with FAS often have trouble in school and difficulty getting along with others.

Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND)

People with ARND generally have intellectual and learning disabilities.  They frequently do poorly in school and have problems with behavior, math, memory, attention, judgment, and impulse control.

Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD)

People with ARBD may have heart, kidney, bone or hearing problems, or a mix of these.

Diagnosis and Treatment

The CDC, in partnership with a team of experts and organizations, reviewed the research and put together some recommended guidelines for the diagnosis of FAS. The guidelines were developed for FAS only. CDC and its partners are still working to assemble criteria for diagnosing other FASDs, such as ARBD and ARND. Research studies on these conditions are underway.

Even diagnosing FAS can be hard because there is no blood test, or another medical test, for it. And other disorders, such as Williams syndrome and Attention Deficit Disorder, have symptoms very similar to FAS.

Behavioral and neurocognitive problems stemming from FASDs are lifelong. However, early recognition, diagnosis, and therapy for any FASD condition can have a positive impact on a child’s health and development.

There are many forms of treatment.  These include medication for dealing with the symptoms, behavioral therapy, education, parental education and training, and other approaches. There is not a single treatment option that is right for every child. Effective treatment plans involve close and careful monitoring, follow-ups, and adjustments as needed along the way.

There are also “protective factors” that have been shown to reduce the effects of FASDs and help people with these conditions reach their full potential. This include:

  • Early diagnosis (before the age of six)
  • Nurturing, stable home environment during childhood
  • Nonexposure to violence
  • Participation and involvement in social service programs and special education and

What’s the bottom line?

Yes, you can be harming your baby before you even know you are pregnant.  If you are a woman of child-bearing years who is not using birth control to prevent contraception, you should abstain from drinking all alcohol.  Period. It’s just not worth the risk.