When women drink while they are pregnant, it can affect their unborn child in many ways. However, when women drink significantly, such as suffering from alcoholism while they are pregnant, the child might develop a disease called fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). It’s a disease that can cause physical abnormalities because of the alcohol in the system while the child is still in utero.
However, research is still underway to determine the level of alcohol that is required to cause damage to a child’s growth prior to birth. Some studies indicate that moderate drinking up to one drink a day does not affect the child. Other studies point to the possibility of light drinking actually improves the health and growth of a fetus. Research indicates that drinking in the first trimester won’t affect fetal growth while drinking in the latter part of pregnancy will have the most damaging effects. In other words, current research and studies are contradictory and there is not any reliable data that points to the safest time or amount of alcohol to drink while pregnant. Of course, for any woman, for the safety of the child, abstaining from drinking is the best choice.
There is evidence that points to the destructive cycle of addiction having the most damage on an unborn child. When an addiction is severe and there is not only drinking but also the psychological issues that drive the addiction, an unborn child is likely to be born with significant impairment. That child might be born with FAS, and when that happens, he or she is likely to have the following symptoms:
- Smaller heads.
- Deformed facial features.
- Abnormal joints and limbs.
- Poor coordination.
- Problems with learning.
- Short memories.
A child with FAS is often easy to spot. Typically, he or she will have deformities to the upper lip and other abnormal facial features. These physical conditions in children have been associated with increased risk of being abused and maltreated in life as well as exhibiting delinquent and violent behavior later in their childhood and adulthood.
Sadly, there are many research studies that point to the association between alcohol consumption during pregnancy and the maltreatment of the child after he or she is born. For this reason and others, many experts in the mental health field consider drinking while being pregnant a form of child abuse. For instance, according to the World Health Organization, in the United States, 35% of perpetrators of child abuse had consumed either alcohol or drugs at the time of the incident.
FAS typically occurs at a rate of 1 to 2 live births per every 1,000 children born in the United States. Another less severe disease is fetal alcohol effects (FAE) which typically occurs at a rate of 3 to 5 live births per every 1,000 children born in the United States. Also, both FAS and FAE are not just childhood disorders; they cause physical and mental disabilities that are life-long. For example, children born with FAS are also at risk for poor brain development and faulty nervous systems to a loss of hearing and vision that persists throughout their lives. Additionally, a child born with either of these serious illnesses is at risk for addiction to drugs and alcohol as adults.
What’s significant to know is that FAS and FAE are entirely preventable. Experts suggest that pregnant women be screened during prenatal visits and for those who test positive, services such as counseling and drug treatment be provided early. Research indicates that the most effective way to reduce FAS is a combination of public health messages that target alcohol abuse as well as higher taxes on alcoholic beverages.
Regardless on the lack of research on how much alcohol it takes to put an unborn child at risk, what is clear is that a developing child cannot process alcohol. Alcohol in the system of the mother places a developing child at significant risk and interferes with the growth process. The fact this might be clear for many mothers indicates that this is not only a form of child abuse but that there are psychological and emotional concerns to address in a pregnant woman who is drinking. Like any substance abuse, it is the psychological illness lying underneath that drives the cycle of addiction.
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