Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) or Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) are two complex conditions that can have serious negative impacts on your baby before and after they’re born. FASD and FAS can affect; the way your baby develops and grows in the womb, your baby’s health at birth, and your baby’s long-term health as a child and beyond.

When you drink an alcoholic drink, the alcohol in your blood passes through the placenta and to your baby. A baby’s liver is one of the last organs to develop and does not mature until the later stages of pregnancy. Your baby cannot process alcohol as well as you can, and too much exposure to alcohol can have serious consequences for their health and development.

What effect can drinking alcohol whilst pregnant have on your baby?

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy has been linked to various complications and can:

  • Affect the way your baby grows and develops in the womb and in particular, the way your baby’s brain develops
  • Increase your chances of suffering a miscarriage
  • Increase the risk of premature labour
  • Increase the risk of stillbirth
  • Make your baby more susceptible to illness
  • Sleep and sucking problems as a baby
  • Cause Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) or Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS).

While FASD is less severe than FAS, children with FASD can have learning difficulties, problems with behaviour, physical disability, and emotional and psychiatric problems that can last a lifetime.

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How is Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder diagnosed?

Unfortunately, diagnosing FASD or FAS can be hard. There are currently no medical tests, or blood tests, for either of these conditions. These conditions can affect each person in different ways and can range from mild to severe. A child, teenager, or young adult with FASD or FAS might experience different conditions, such as:

  • Low body weight
  • Small head size
  • Poor coordination
  • Hyperactive behaviour
  • Poor memory and difficulty with attention
  • Learning difficulties in school, especially with numeracy
  • Speech and language delays
  • Intellectual disability or low IQ
  • Poor reasoning and judgment skills
  • Vision or hearing problems
  • Problems with the heart, kidneys, or bones
  • Shorter-than-average height
  • Abnormal facial features

FASD or FAS can also make children and young adults more susceptible to illness.

Is there anything I can do to reduce the chances of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?

You can adopt lifestyle changes to reduce the chance that your child will be born with FASD or FAS – cutting down or stopping drinking reduces the risks to your baby. The more you drink, the more your baby’s growth will be affected and the less healthy your baby will be. Drinking later in pregnancy can also affect your baby after it’s born. Because of this, most women do give up alcohol when they’re planning to become pregnant, or once they know they’re pregnant.

Women are advised that if they choose to drink alcohol while they’re pregnant they should drink no more than 1-2 UK units once or twice a week. However, if you cut down or stop drinking altogether, your baby will start to grow at a normal rate. Stopping drinking at any point during pregnancy can be beneficial. However, in some instances, the effects on your baby of heavy drinking cannot be reversed.

If you find out you’re pregnant after already having drunk in early pregnancy then you should avoid further drinking.

Getting drunk or binge drinking during pregnancy

Even if you don’t drink regularly, you’re advised not get to drunk or binge drink – drinking more than 7.5 UK units of alcohol on a single occasion – while you’re pregnant because this can still harm your unborn baby.

If you’re pregnant and you’re drinking more than 6 units of alcohol a day, or if you’re struggling with an alcohol problem, then talk to a midwife or doctor. It’s never too late to stop drinking or to seek help. Stopping drinking at any point during your pregnancy can help reduce the risk of problems in your baby.

What is a unit of alcohol?

One UK unit is 10 ml (8 grams) of pure alcohol. If you do decide to drink when you’re pregnant, it’s important to know how many units you’re consuming. Look at the list below to see how many units of alcohol are in certain drinks.

Drink and units of alcohol (approx)

  • 1 glass (175 ml) of white or red wine: 2.3 units
  • 1 large glass (250 ml) of average white or red wine: 3.2 units
  • 1 single shot (25ml) of 40% spirit (Vodka, Gin etc.): 1 unit
  • 1 pint of beer or lager: 2.3 units
  • 1 pint of cider: 2.6 units
  • 1 glass of champagne: 1.5 units
  • 1 alcopop: 1.1 units

Help and support for Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

If you’re concerned about your drinking, talk to a midwife or doctor. The organisations listed below offer confidential help and support.

  • Drinkline: The national alcohol helpline. If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s drinking
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA): A free self-help group; its 12-step programme involves getting sober with the help of regular support groups.
  • NOFAS: UK helpline on 020 8458 5951.

Article by Dr Chrissie Yu. BSc MBBS (Lond.) MD (Lond.) FRCOG Consultant Obstetrician & Specialist in Fetal-Maternal Medicine at The Portland Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK.

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