Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is a term used to define a variety of birth defects and disabilities that can be caused by the mother's consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. FAS can affect the physical, behavioral and cognitive areas of an individual's life and can be an enormous financial burden on families and society. There is no known safe amount of alcohol to consume while being pregnant and therefore the recommendation is abstinence throughout the pregnancy
I furthered my knowledge of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome several years ago when I was the director of a local drug and alcohol recovery support center and a state agency invited me to join a statewide advisory board concerning Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The purpose of the advisory board was to collaborate with other organizations and agencies in order to education and raise awareness throughout our community about this issue.
FAS can be identified by a number of physical characteristics, namely facial deformities such as a smooth or flatten philtrum (the divot or groove between the nose and upper lip) also the upper lip can be very thin. The width of the eyes can be shortened giving the appearance that the eyes are set further apart and many times the circumference of head is smaller than normal.
Additional disabilities can include deformities of the joints, limbs and fingers, slow physical growth before and after birth, hearing or vision limitations, coordination problems, and possible heart defects.
Cognitive problems as a result of fetal alcohol syndrome span from learning disorders to severe mental retardation. Abnormal behaviors such as a short attention span, hyperactivity, poor impulse control, extreme nervousness and anxiety can also be present in those with FAS. Some of these problems are not diagnosed until school age years and it can difficult to trace it back alcohol consumption while pregnant, not to mention the fact that many women will not disclose their drinking habits during that time frame.
Why is this? It is because the dependent person has developed an unhealthy relationship with alcohol/drugs. Two components of this relationship are trust and love. They like the way it makes them feel when they use or drink and it works every time, so they begin to trust it. Eventually that feeling of 'liking it' can turn into 'loving it' and the substance becomes the object of their affection.
According to the SAMHSA website (Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration) there are an estimated 40,000 babies born with an FASD (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder) and it's the leading cause of preventable mental retardation. SAMSHA also indicates that health costs of children with FASD were nine higher than those without it, estimating that the lifetime cost can be at least $2 million and overall annual cost to the US healthcare system to be more than $6 billion and the sad truth that all of this can be prevented. That is why educating and advocating zero alcohol consumption for pregnant women is so important.
During my time with the advisory board I provided educational presentations to a wide variety of audiences using the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome 'babies'. These were lifelike representations of alcohol and/or drug affected newborn infants. They simulated what babies would look like if they had symptoms of FAS or had been affected by the mother's drug use. These infant replicas even simulated the constant crying and fussing that babies do when they born drug effected. If the mother was an active addict during pregnancy, for example using cocaine, then when the baby is born and is no longer exposed to the drug they experience withdrawal.
Frequently the first thought that goes through a person's mind when hearing about this disorder is "How can a woman use or drink during her pregnancy? Don't they know it could hurt the baby?" It is helpful to know a little about addiction to try and answer these questions. Most people know the difference between right and wrong and that alcohol and drugs can and do harm unborn babies. But when afflicted with dependency the thought process becomes very distorted. Addiction dramatically effects good, sound judgment and renders the person powerless against the irrational thinking process.
Although understanding addiction does not excuse the behavior nor make it acceptable, it can be a doorway into trying to develop solutions to this costly and devastating disorder. Alcoholics and addicts are not bad people needing to get good, but rather sick people needing to get well. Any sane person would not make the same choices as those that are made while suffering from addiction.
There is a severe stigma with females who abuse alcohol and drugs while pregnant because of the very nature of the outcome. This type of judgment from others can make it difficult for women to come forward who have the problem of dependency. Resources for getting help can be another barrier. Various treatment programs have implemented policies where pregnant females can access treatment immediately to try and deter any damage that might be done to the fetus.
As a community we need to continue educating and raising awareness of this issue so that don't go uninformed about it or turn and look the other way. We can work together towards the solution of trying to eliminate FASD. There is hope and there is help.
Angie Carter, CRADC, SAP is a certified alcohol and drug counselor in the State of Missouri and DOT certified Substance Abuse Professional. She is in private practice with her husband at Carter Counseling and Consulting Services in Central Missouri. Angie primarily sees clients in office, but is also available for telephone coaching and/or consultation. Click here to contact Angie with your questions or feedback.