Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can lead to complications. (Source: Getty Images)
By Dr Ambuja Govindaraj
Sometimes as a stress reliever, as a tool to fit into peer groups, to follow the trend and be cool, and sometimes just as celebration, alcohol is becoming a part of everyone's life. While the limits and impact of alcohol have been widely discussed, there is an extensive need for mothers-to-be to stay away from it. Pregnant mothers have always been told not to drink during their pregnancy but a major reason for that is the foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) which can develop in the child.
Foetal Alcohol Syndrome
To put simply, foetal alcohol syndrome is the mental and physical damage in a child due to exposure to alcohol while in the womb. This can range from growth problems to brain damage. While the disorders can be mild or severe and can cause physical as well as mental birth defects, they are mainly of the following types:
· Foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)
· Partial foetal alcohol syndrome
· Alcohol-related birth defects
· Alcohol-related neurodevelopment disorder
· A neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure
The obvious cause of FAS is alcohol consumption. No amount of alcohol has been established as safe to be consumed during pregnancy. If a pregnant woman drinks alcohol during pregnancy, she places the baby at the risk of FAS. The more alcohol is taken during pregnancy, the greater the risk to the unborn baby. Experts usually suggest avoiding alcohol while you are pregnant or if you think you may be or even when you are trying, as before you realise you may put the child to risk. This is because the baby's brain, heart and blood vessels begin to develop in the early weeks of pregnancy, many times even before the person comes to know that she is pregnant.
What happens when you drink alcohol during pregnancy
When alcohol is consumed during pregnancy, it works in the following manner:
· Alcohol enters the woman's bloodstream and reaches the developing foetus by crossing the placenta.
· Since a fetus metabolises alcohol slower than an adult, the alcohol leads to higher blood alcohol concentrations in the developing baby.
· As a result, alcohol hinders the delivery of optimal nutrition and oxygen to the developing baby.
· This alcohol exposure prior to the birth, harms the development of tissues and organs, even causing permanent brain damage in the baby.
Symptoms of FAS
As FAS comes with a wide range of problems, its symptoms also range from mental to physical as well as from mild to severe. Distinct facial features, disabilities in learning, joint and bone deformities, heart defects, hyperactivity are some of the prominent signs in a child with FAS. Parents are also likely to notice developmental (delayed development, low birth weight, short stature, slow growth, learning disability, etc.) as well as behavioural (aggression, antisocial behavior, impulsivity, irritability, hyperactivity, etc.) inconsistencies in the child. Congenital heart disease, anxiety, hearing loss, malnutrition, a single line on palm, vision disorder, speech impairment, intellectual disabilities are also among the symptoms that might be observed in the child.
Some of the more common symptoms in a child with FAS include:
· Abnormal facial features like:
· A small head
· A smooth ridge between the upper lip and nose
· Small and wide-set eyes
· A very thin upper lip
· Below average height and weight
· Lack of concentration
· Poor coordination
· Problems in thinking, speech, movement, and social skills
· delayed development
· Poor judgment
· Issues with hearing or seeing
· Learning and/or intellectual disabilities
· Heart problems
· Kidney defects and abnormalities
· Deformed limbs or fingers
· Mood swings
While the symptoms and defects caused by FAS differ with each child, these defects are irreversible. Treatment can be of help, but FAS cannot be cured. Early diagnosis and treatment can help in reducing the symptoms or the impact and especially help with learning difficulties and behavioral issues. As it is in most health issues, an early diagnosis might be helpful in reducing the risk of long-term problems for children with FAS. Hence it is important to let your, as well as your child's doctor, be informed if you consumed alcohol during pregnancy. It is suggested not to wait for the problems to arise.
How to prevent FAS
More than anything, prevention is the key to avoid FAS. It is entirely preventable if pregnant women can avoid alcohol completely during pregnancy. Some of the guidelines that can help in the prevention of this syndrome are:
· Do not consume alcohol if you're trying to get pregnant.
· Stop drinking as soon as you know you're pregnant or if you even think you might be pregnant. The sooner you stop, the better it is for your baby.
· Avoid alcohol throughout your pregnancy.
· Consider giving up alcohol during your childbearing years. This is advised as many pregnancies are unplanned, and damage can occur in the earliest weeks of pregnancy.
If you believe you have any dependency or addiction towards alcohol or are finding it difficult to avoid drinking it, get professional help before you get pregnant.
(The writer is Consultant, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Columbia Asia Referral hospital Yeshwanthpur.)