Most of us know that when a mother drinks alcohol during pregnancy, she puts her baby at high risk of developing fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Now, a new study shows that the rate at which children are impacted by these life-long disabilities may be higher than previously estimated.
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Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder can include learning, behavioral and physical problems, as well as alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder and alcohol-related birth defects.
In the study, researchers assessed 6,639 first-graders in four U.S. communities and identified 222 children as having a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Only two of these children had been previously diagnosed with the condition before the study occurred.
Based on their findings, the researchers estimated conservatively that fetal alcohol spectrum disorders affect 1.1 percent to 5 percent of U.S. children — up to five times the previous estimates.
The results show that fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is a problem that all pregnant women need to know about, says Ob/Gyn Salena Zanotti, MD. She did not take part in the study.
“In past large studies, the estimate was 10 out of a thousand children may have something in this spectrum, and this study suggests it’s probably closer to 5%, which is significantly more than what we thought,” she says.
Alcohol can impact a pregnancy at any stage, Dr. Zanotti says. This is important to know for women without an addiction issue who erroneously think it is all right to drink small or infrequent amounts of alcohol during a pregnancy.
Plainly put, pregnant women should not consume any alcohol, Dr. Zanotti says.
A 2015 American Academy of Pediatrics report said “no amount of alcohol intake should be considered safe” during any trimester. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that sexually active women who are not using birth control “not drink alcohol at all.”
In early pregnancy, alcohol can cause heart defects and birth defects, and increases the risk of stillbirth or miscarriage. In the later stages of pregnancy, alcohol can affect the development of the brain, which can significantly impact a child’s memory, learning abilities and motor abilities.
Many times, these cognitive problems do not appear until a child is school-age, Dr. Zanotti says.
Pregnant women need to know that fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is 100 percent preventable, Dr. Zanotti says. Help is available to those who are struggling with alcohol addiction.
“This is something you’re choosing to ingest and this is something we can stop,” she said. “There are people who have problems with addiction and they need help and guidance to find the resources that are available to them.”
Complete results of the study can be found in the journal JAMA.