September is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Awareness Month because pregnancies last ninth months.
So let me start by saying that, regardless of what you’ve heard, even from your doctor, there is no known safe amount of alcohol to drink while pregnant. This includes all three trimesters of the pregnancy, despite any messages you have heard to the contrary. In fact, the Institute of Medicine says, “Of all substances of abuse (including cocaine, heroin, and marijuana), alcohol produces by far the most serious neurobehavioral effects in the fetus.”
Here are six things you need to know about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs):
1. Alcohol – any alcohol – can damage a fetus at any point during pregnancy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), no woman of child-bearing age should drink alcohol unless she is using effective birth control effectively. (Look here for common myths about light drinking when pregnant: https://www.nofas.org/light-drinking/)
Why so strident?
2. Because half of all pregnancies are unplanned, and most women won’t know they are pregnant until after the first four to six weeks.
3. Alcohol is the number one preventable cause of mental retardation in the US, and up to 1 in 20 school children in the US may have a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) according to the CDC. For the purpose of comparison, in the US, children with Autism Spectrum Disorders are 1 in 68. Down Syndrome? 1 in 700. Zika Virus? 5 children in all of 2016.
FASD is a big deal!
4. Children affected by fetal alcohol exposure may look like any other child, but alcohol can cause the brain of the child to be permanently damaged, causing poor coordination, hyperactivity, attention and memory problems, learning disabilities and other difficulties in school, among myriad other problems.
5. Children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) have additional problems that are more easily observed: abnormal facial features, small head circumference, shorter-than-average height, low body weight, vision and hearing problems, and heart, kidney, or bone problems.
6. Are men off the hook? Honestly, we don’t know. There haven’t been enough studies about how alcohol affects sperm, but we DO know that an intimate partner who doesn’t drink is the best source of support for the significant other not to drink.
No one intends to have a baby with an FASD, and preventing them is pretty simple for women of child-bearing age: use effective birth control effectively or don’t drink any alcohol. And if you know a woman who may not be conducting herself this way, start a conversation with her. Uncomfortable conversations save lives.