Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is widely recognised as the most common preventable cause of birth defects and brain damage in children.
FASD is not a medical diagnosis in itself, but it is an umbrella term now being used to more accurately describe the spectrum of disabilities (and diagnoses) associated with prenatal exposure to alcohol. The diagnoses that fall under the spectrum are Foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), partial FAS, (pFAS) Foetal alcohol effects, (FAE), alcohol related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND) and alcohol related birth defects (ARBD).
Foetal alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is the most readily and easily diagnosed of the spectrum because affected children have distinct facial indicators, but although most easily diagnosed it is also the least common disorder as it only occurs if the woman has drunk heavily on a particular day very early in her pregnancy (usually before she has had her pregnancy confirmed) This is one reason it is so important that women don't drink alcohol if there is any chance they might get pregnant.
If the mother has drunk alcohol at any other time during the pregnancy the chid is not at risk of having FAS but is still at risk of having any of the other diagnoses under the spectrum that result in permanent brain damage and significant learning and behavioural disorders that last a lifetime
How much alcohol is safe?
Apart from being a toxic substance alcohol is also a teratogen - that is a substance that interferes with the normal development of the fetus.
Specifically alcohol is a neurobehavioural teratogen and that means its greatest effect is on the brain and in particular the behaviour centres of the brain which are susceptible to damage the whole way through the pregnancy.
Because alcohol affects so many sites in the brain, researchers believe that alcohol is far worse for the developing fetus than any other abused drug.
Alcohol can damage the developing baby throughout the pregnancy. It crosses the placenta freely and produces equivalent concentrations in foetal circulation to that in the mother. The liver of the developing baby is immature and cannot metabolize the alcohol so has to wait for the mother to metabolize her alcohol first. In some instances this means the developing baby may end up with a blood alcohol level that is slightly higher than its mother as it urinates into the amniotic fluid and re-ingests it.
Researchers have not been able to determine a safe level for alcohol consumption for pregnant women. It is known that the more alcohol that is consumed during pregnancy the greater the risk of harm. Some studies conclude that the developing brain can be injured even at low alcohol exposure levels, so the best advice is no alcohol equals no risk.
To avoid damage to the unborn baby, "no alcohol if trying to conceive, during pregnancy and while breastfeeding". Stopping or reducing alcohol at any time during the pregnancy will increase a woman's chances of having a healthy baby – it is never too late in a pregnancy to stop drinking..
Children whose biological fathers are/were heavy drinkers are also at higher risk of birth defects, social problems, learning problems and behaviour problems. It is no known how much is due to alcohol consumption before or at the time of conception, or how much is attributable to inherited or genetic factors, but it is known that alcohol can affect the DNA of the sperm causing deformities in either the head or the tail of the sperm. These mutations can lead to birth defects, miscarriage, or illness in the resulting baby.