Up to 4% of Canadians have Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Preventing FASD is more complex than recommending no alcohol use in pregnancy. FASD can happen in any community or group where alcohol is used.
With 1 in 25 Canadians having FASD, chances are you know someone with FASD; a neighbour, a friend, or a relative. You might not even know it. To look at the bigger picture of FASD helps people move away from the shame, blame, stigma, and discrimination of FASD. The best way to make a difference is to support women, individuals with FASD, and their families. Supporting women can include learning about the reasons they may use alcohol in pregnancies.
Each person with FASD has different strengths and challenges. Each person will need different supports. Each person with FASD can have successes.
What is FASD?
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a diagnostic term used to describe impacts on the brain and body of individuals prenatally exposed to alcohol. FASD is a lifelong disability. Individuals with FASD will experience some degree of challenges in their daily living, and need support with motor skills, physical health, learning, memory, attention, communication, emotional regulation, and social skills to reach their full potential. Each individual with FASD is unique and has areas of both strengths and challenges (CanFASD, 2019).
Alcohol is used in pregnancy for many reasons
The reasons a woman may use alcohol before she is pregnant are still there the day the pregnancy test is positive. There are many reasons for prenatal alcohol use, such as:
Shame and blame don’t work
Many people know that it is healthiest for both mother and baby when alcohol is not used in pregnancy. However, many people don’t know that shame and blame do not change the many reasons alcohol might be used during pregnancy. In fact, shame and blame (stigma) are often reasons people don’t ask for help, talk about alcohol use, or go for prenatal care. When we make it easier to talk about prenatal alcohol use, we make it easier for people to get help, be as healthy as possible, and have healthier pregnancies. Removing stigma will make it easier for people to ask for help.
Partners make a difference
It is easier for a pregnant woman to not use alcohol when her partner supports her. This includes a partner not drinking or cutting back on drinking when they are trying to get pregnant, and during the pregnancy. It is also a healthy start for baby when both mom and dad see their healthcare professionals when they decide to have children.
When a woman who is pregnant lives with someone who drinks heavily, she is more likely to use alcohol. It is also harder for a pregnant woman to stop using alcohol if:
A father’s alcohol use does not cause FASD. Researchers have found that a father’s alcohol use can cause changes to:
Research also shows that a father’s alcohol use might make the fetus more vulnerable to prenatal alcohol exposure. However, more research is needed in this area.
Alcohol use affects every person and pregnancy differently
Alcohol affects every person’s body differently. Alcohol also affects every fetus (unborn baby) differently. That is why each person with FASD has different strengths and challenges. Here are some reasons:
Working together for success for children with FASD (protective factors)
Protective factors for children with FASD include:
Faith – Ability – Strength – Determination (Myles Himmelreich)
Myles Himmelreich, a motivational speaker with FASD, gives another view of FASD: Faith, Ability, Strength, and Determination. When raising awareness of FASD, it is better to talk about strengths and challenges. This helps to understand needs and how to provide help. Focusing on problems builds stigma for people with FASD and their families.
Most mothers of children with FASD want to help their children get help. Families that have supports tend to do better. Secondary challenges can be prevented if an individual’s primary disabilities are well supported. Recommendations for supports work best when they consider the child’s specific needs and they line up with the supports that are available in the community.
FASD and the brain
The brain is continually changing and adapting. This is called neuroplasticity. Although areas of the brain may be affected before birth, the brain has an amazing way of working around this. When the brain is affected by alcohol prenatally, it may not work the way that it might have worked if it wasn’t exposed. It may take a lot of practice to learn something in a different way, but the brain can learn new ways of working.
Research is providing hope that effective therapies can have a positive impact on the brain damage caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol.
Alcohol can make changes in fetal development
During pregnancy, alcohol can affect any part of the baby’s developing body. This includes the brain. The brain develops for all 9 months of pregnancy. Alcohol’s effects to the brain and body can happen before a woman knows she is pregnant.
When alcohol affects the brain, it can make a child’s growing and learning harder. Alcohol can cause challenges with:
Other parts of the baby that are developing when alcohol is used can be affected. There may be problems with:
It is never too late to reduce harm by quitting drinking or cutting back on drinking. It is not easy to stop drinking if it is a habit or a dependency. Working on changes before pregnancy can make it easier. When a partner, family, and friends are supportive, it is not as difficult to make changes. Healthcare professionals and counsellors can also help.
What if an unborn baby has been exposed to alcohol?
If a baby has been prenatally exposed to alcohol, talking to a healthcare provider and watching for any physical or developmental challenges can help protect the baby. Putting early supports in place, getting a diagnosis when the time is right, and supporting the family may help prevent some secondary challenges.
How much alcohol is safe to use in pregnancy?
Science shows that alcohol use in pregnancy can affect the unborn baby. There is not enough evidence to show a safe amount of alcohol use. The safest choice is no alcohol.