Preventing Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders – Some Surprising Opportunities

As you’ve likely heard, alcohol use during pregnancy is risky for the developing baby.  In Alberta, a baby is born every day with brain damage due to alcohol exposure in the womb.  In Canada, it costs $1.8 million dollars to support just one individual with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).  In too many cases, 10% of these costs are through the criminal justice system.  Less than 1 in 4 will show the characteristic facial features associated with FASD (this may only occur if alcohol is ingested on days 19, 20, or 21 of pregnancy).

FASD is the #1 environmental cause of developmental disability in the world.  The good news?  It is 100% preventable.  But how?

The U.S. has warning labels on alcohol.  However, like warnings on cigarettes, unless these are updated frequently, people tend to get used to them.  Also, the people who need to see them most are least likely to see them often.  Also, without some sort of support materials or programming, warning labels alone are not very effective.  (Ditto for billboards or other print materials – they need to be coupled with screening or other materials to work.)  Light drinkers may listen, but heavy drinkers (who see the labels more often) tend not to cut down or quit.

Although public awareness is helpful & often shows an increase in knowledge about the problem, it doesn’t work well to change what people do.  In the case of FASD, it doesn’t seem to translate into fewer pregnant (or soon-to-be pregnant) women curbing their drinking.  Why?

Research shows that medical professionals send mixed messages – some actually encourage women to have a drink if it “calms their nerves.”  Many people don’t consider beer, wine, or wine coolers to be “real” alcohol.  Many know someone who drank during pregnancy (or they did, themselves) and had a baby who was “fine.”

Women who are least likely to drink while pregnant (or who quit as soon as they discover they are pregnant) are more likely unmarried, younger, and ethnically diverse.

Interestingly, there are two types of women who tend to drink while pregnant – one is no surprise, but the other might be.  The first group is women who are living in difficult circumstances: poverty, abusive relationships, depression, unemployment, overwhelmed by life and seeing little escape.  Programmes to prevent FASD in this group work best if they provide tangible mentoring, offer birth control while the women receives treatment, and find out why they drink (instead of just preaching for them to stop).

The second group might surprise you: women over thirty with successful careers.  This group tends to have six or more drinks per week, usually while they socialize.  It may seem normal to drink and the focus of most of their social activity.  They (and their peers who watch them consume alcohol) may figure that they don’t fit the stereotype of an FASD mom – because prevention efforts often highlight the underpriviledged or Aboriginal communities (rates here are particularly high, unfortunately), it may be tempting to conclude that well-off or non-Aboriginal women are not at risk.  Many figure “one drink won’t hurt.”  Unfortunately, no amount is guaranteed safe, even if you sip.

Gentlemen – this one’s for you: whether a woman’s partner drinks is a strong predictor of whether she will, too.  Plan social activities that don’t revolve around drinking.  Share a mocktail with your gal (see recipes below).  Offering her a fun fizzy beverage is a great way to show you care.  And she’ll love that you care about the baby & helping her to be a mom, too.

Friends – talk to each other about committing to “mama to be – no drink for me.”  Offer alternatives to alcoholic beverages at social occasions like book club or ladies night out.

Mamas to be (or maybe you’re not sure?  Missed a period?) – None is best, regardless of the free pass your physician dealt out.  If you are in your first trimester, but want to keep your pregnancy under wraps, choose a non-alcoholic drink & blame it on a headache, cold medication, or being the designated driver.  Empower yourself to have fun in other ways.

Canadian pop icon Kim Mitchell sang, “might as well go for a soda – nobody hurts and nobody cries.”  Mocktail recipes (“sexy” but safe versions of a cosmo, mojito, martini, and sangria with added health benefits):

Valentine’s Day mocktails:

Mocktails for the foodie:

Mocktails for every girlfriend occasion:

Learn more about FASD’s effects:

& home-grown Alberta supports:  or

About tanya.spencer

Dr. Spencer has worked with families, schools, and residential treatment settings using an evidence-based framework and cognitive-behavioural perspective. She specializes in learning problems, attachment, mood disorders, teen self-harm and the autism and fetal alcohol spectra.
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30 Responses to Preventing Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders – Some Surprising Opportunities

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    • Love your comment. I am always interested in facts that surprise and promote self-reflection. We pride ourselves on basing our practice on well-researched information. Here is the reference for this posting: Deshpande, S. et al. (2005). Promoting alcohol abstinence among pregnant women: Potential social change strategies. Health Marketing Quarterly, 23 (2), 45-65.

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