What is Foetal Alcohol Syndrome?
Foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) refers to growth, mental, and physical problems that may occur in a baby when a mother drinks alcohol during pregnancy. When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol it passes across the placenta to the foetus. Because of this, drinking alcohol may harm the baby’s development. A child’s brain is growing all the way through pregnancy and alcohol can affect this at any time. Alcohol causes more damage to the developing foetus that any other substance, including cannabis, heroin and cocaine (Institute of Medicine, 1996). A pregnant woman who drinks any amount of alcohol is considered to be at risk. However, larger amounts appear to increase the problem. Binge drinking appears to be more harmful than drinking small amounts of alcohol. Timing of alcohol use during pregnancy is also important – alcohol use during the first 3 months of pregnancy seems to be more harmful. It’s estimated that 7,500 babies are born in the UK every year suffering the effects of FAS.
What are the symptoms?
A baby born with FAS may have some of the following symptoms: • Poor growth while the baby is in the womb and after birth • Decreased muscle tone and poor coordination • Delayed development and significant functional problems in three or more major areas: thinking, speech, movement, or social skills (as expected for the baby’s age) • Heart defects such as ventricular septal defect (VSD) or atrial septal defect (ASD) • Structural problems with the face, including narrow, small eyes with large epicanthal folds, small head/upper jaw, smooth and thin upper lip Please note, the above is only a guide and any diagnosis of FAS needs to be established by a medical professional.
What advice should be given to women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy?
FAS is a completely preventable spectrum ofdisorders that afflicts a wide range of babies and children in many different ways. These effects can be lifelong and agencies providing services to adults and children should work together to raise awareness of this safeguarding issue for unborn children. Providing clear advice that strongly advocates women avoiding alcohol completely during pregnancy will ensure their children are not at risk from getting a form of FAS.
Women who are pregnant or who are trying to get pregnant should be advised of the risks of drinking to their unborn child. They should be encouraged to avoid drinking any amount of alcohol in line with Department of Health guidance.
Prospective parents who are unsure about the effects that their alcohol consumption may have on a future pregnancy should be encouraged to speak with their GP.
Pregnant women who misuse alcohol and may have difficulty in stopping drinking should encouraged to seek support from one of the agencies working in Redbridge that support people with alcohol misuse issues (R3 – adults and Fusion – young people) and be checked closely by a health care provider throughout pregnancy.
Further Guidance and Resources
There are a number of different sources of information and guidance on the topic of FAS that can be used to informed professionals or to signpost parents to.
- NHS Choices – Introduction to Foetal Alcohol Syndrome
- Report – All babies count – Spotlight on Drugs and Alcohol, NSPCC
- R3 (Redbridge Recovery and Reintegration) – one stop service in Redbridge which provides advice, treatment and support to adults whose lives are affected by drug or alcohol misuse.
- Fusion – a service in Redbridge working with young people affected by drug or alcohol misuse.
- NOFAS-UK – national organisation dedicated to supporting people affected by FAS.
- Drinkaware – independent charity working to raise awareness of the effects of alcohol abuse.