Foetal Alcohol Syndrome – The Dangers
The consumption of alcohol, though legal, is not without its risks. Prolonged and frequent drinking can have serious consequences for the heart, liver and brain. During pregnancy a whole new set of possible consequences arise for the child. They can take the form of spontaneous abortion, premature labour, stillbirth and a range of disorders known as foetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Foetal alcohol spectrum disorders cover a wide range of birth defects related to alcohol consumption during pregnancy, this article will explore the one of the most common ones, Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS).
What causes it
Foetal Alcohol Syndrome is caused directly by drinking during pregnancy. When alcohol is consumed it passes through the placenta and is processed by the internal organs of the foetus as well as the internal organs of the mother. The organs of the baby, the liver especially, are still busy developing, therefore the foetus cannot process alcohol the same way an adult can. This is particularly damaging to the rapidly developing cells of the brain, though other organs can also be affected.
There is no “safe” time to drink during pregnancy. It is even recommended that people attempting to get pregnant, avoid alcohol because it can even be damaging to the foetus before a pregnancy is detected. There is also no safe amount to drink. Even as little as one unit of alcohol can be enough to have a severe impact on the neurological development of a child.
During pregnancy, mother and child share a circulatory system. All the chemicals processed in the mother’s body pass to the child through the placenta, thus when drinking, the alcohol ends up in the child’s blood stream. There is no was to ensure that the alcohol is only processed by one and not the other. Due to the brain developing so rapidly during pregnancy, it is the organ most susceptible, though other organs are also affected.
FAS is a lifelong developmental disability. There is no cure or way to reverse the damaging effects that alcohol has on the brain. A person with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome will have it until the day they die.
Children with FAS have distinct facial features, other signs and symptoms are grouped into 2 categories, developmental and behavioural.
Developmental symptoms are a result of the brain structure not developing as it should. Therefore, a host of symptoms can occur. These include but are not limited to:
- Intellectual disability
- Learning Disorders
- Delayed development
- Poor coordination and balance
- Poor memory
- Difficulty problem-solving and reasoning
- Difficulty paying attention, general jitteriness and anxiety – which may include a diagnosis of ADHD
- Poor judgement and difficulty making connections between choices and consequences
- Rapidly changing moods
The second category for symptoms are social and behavioural issues. These are a result of development symptoms in the first category. These are the only symptoms that can be worked with and adjusted for throughout life. They may be lessened or addressed through adjusted schooling, therapy, life skills and coping skills training. It is however important to note that the success of these strategies is dependent on how severe the brain development issues are, not just the quality of the therapy received. Signs include, but are not limited to:
- Struggling in school and in traditional working environments
- Poor impulse control
- Poor social skills and difficulty making friends and forming social connections
- Hyper focus, and difficulty adjusting to a different task or a different way of doing a familiar task.
- Difficulty in planning and working towards a non-immediate goal
- Poor concept of time and poor time management
- General behavioural issues, such as destructiveness, aggression and hostility
- Trouble communicating effectively, (may even present as mute)
South African Stats
Foetal Alcohol Syndrome is the third highest cause of congenital mental retardation and the most common form of preventable mental disability. South Africa has the highest incidence of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome in the world. This varies from area to area with certain parts of the Western Cape having an incidence of 12.9%. This number is alarmingly high when compared with The European Union where incidences of the full range of alcohol spectrum disorders are between 1% and 5% depending on region.
Foetal Alcohol Syndrome is an entirely preventable form of mental disability. Should you or a loved be pregnant, or trying to get pregnant, and are struggling saying no to alcohol despite the possible negative consequences, this may be indicative of alcoholism. Contact Crossroads for a free assessment to determine if intervention is needed.
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