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Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)

So what’s the deal with drinking alcohol when you’re pregnant?

By the time grade 12 comes around most a lot of people have experimented with drinking. If you or your friends are drinking regularly (during the week or even just at parties a couple of times a month) and if you are having sexual intercourse (penis in vagina sex) it is especially important that you are using birth control to avoid becoming pregnant.

That’s because babies who are born to mothers who drink during pregnancy are at risk for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

What is FASD?
You may have heard people talk about FASD or Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Basically, if a woman or girl drinks during her pregnancy she is at risk of having a baby with FASD. FASD is the name that we give to a disability (grouping of medical diagnoses) related to drinking alcohol during pregnancy. FASD is kind of like a brain injury that affects the way we are able to engage in day to day activities. FASD is a big deal because there is no cure and if you have it, you are affected for life.

FASD can cause physical effects. People with FASD can be,

  • smaller for their age,
  • have smaller eyes,
  • have a smooth area between the nose and upper lip,
  • or have a thinner upper lip.

FASD can cause behavioural and emotional effects. People with FASD often,

  • have more trouble learning,
  • have a harder time remembering things,
  • have a harder time understanding the consequences of their behaviour,
  • find it difficult to figure out how to behave with their peers and other people,
  • be unable to express themselves or understand what others are trying to tell them.

Kids born with FASD and their families often need a lot of support. This is because FASD is a lifelong disability that has a serious effect on a person’s life and the lives of those in their family.

How do you get FASD?
The only way for a child to be born with FASD is if their birth mother drinks during the pregnancy. This doesn’t mean that guys, friends, and family are off the hook – so keep on reading! We don’t know exactly how much alcohol it takes to cause FASD because it all depends on:

  • The woman or girl – her body’s ability to deal with the alcohol
  • The fetus – its ability to deal with the alcohol
  • Nutrition
  • Poverty
  • Stress
  • Timing of when she drinks
  • What is happening in her life
  • How much she drinks at a time

It is different for each girl and each pregnancy. We do know that binge drinking, which means drinking 3 or more standard drinks at any one time, during pregnancy puts girls at the highest risk for having kids with FASD and that the more you drink the higher the risk of having a child affected by FASD. Since we can’t know for sure what amount of alcohol will cause problems in pregnancy, we recommend that girls and women who are pregnant don’t drink at all during pregnancy.

Girls, Drinking, and Pregnancy
First off, in an ideal world pregnancy would be planned and we wouldn’t have to worry about this, but we live in the real world where half of all pregnancies are unplanned or unintended. True.

It is super important to make sure that we – this means everyone not just girls and women, guys too, and everyone in between – know all about protection and preventing pregnancy. (Helpful Hint: now would be a good time to check out the Birth Control Section if you have any questions!).

If you don’t want to quit drinking or having sex, no problem, that is why birth control exists. Using birth control properly can be a bit tough (hence the unplanned pregnancy) so make sure you have talked to someone about how to use your method correctly. It is also important that we learn all that we can about pregnancy options (parenting, abortion and adoption) in order to make a choice that works best for you (for more info check out the Pregnancy Options Section).

Most teenagers aren’t looking to get pregnant, so many drink until they discover they are pregnant, and many teenagers report that they binge drink on weekends. This means that some teens are at risk of having kids with FASD. If you discover you are pregnant and are able to quit drinking, great; you just did the best thing that you could for your pregnancy. And you are not alone. Lots of women drink before they find out they are pregnant. It doesn’t make you a bad person, it just means that there is a chance your fetus may have been affected by alcohol. Make sure your doctor or midwife know about this so they can help you have the healthiest pregnancy possible.

What should I do if I'm pregnant?
For some girls it is easy to give up drinking when they are pregnant.

For others, they don’t even know they are pregnant, but can quit when they find out.

For still others, quitting drinking is easier said than done. A lot of girls drink because they feel like they have to, are stressed out, or because they are trying to deal with a violent relationship, histories of sexual abuse and/or other crappy things that have happened to them. Some girls have boyfriends or friends who pressure them to drink, and some are addicted to drinking.

Some girls have a hard time accepting their pregnancy and drink to help distract them from tough decisions they will have to make about their pregnancy.
This means that girls need to be supported in different ways depending on their own unique situation.

For Girls and Women
If you have made the choice to stay pregnant, and are having a hard time quitting drinking for whatever reason, please try to be kind to yourself. Even if you can’t quit, drinking less can help reduce your risk for FASD.

Ask for help, either from an adult you trust, a guidance counsellor, a nurse or doctor at a teen clinic, or even a counsellor. These folks should be able to help you decide what kind of support you might need to have the healthiest pregnancy possible. Even If you aren’t sure if you are going to go ahead with your pregnancy it is important to be healthy, just in case!

For Family, Friends, and Partners
Blaming girls and women or making them feel ashamed for drinking during their pregnancy doesn’t help. At all.

How can you help if someone is pregnant?

  • Be supportive
  • If she’s drinking, try to find out why and what is going on for her – try not to judge. Be caring, open, and a good listener.
  • Encourage her to get pre-natal care (regular check-ups during pregnancy). Pre-natal care helps reduce the risk of FASD and other problems in pregnancy!
  • Try not to drink or use drugs around her
  • Plan fun activities that don’t involve drinking
  • Offer to stay sober if you’re going to a party together where there will be alcohol
  • Offer to go to the clinic with her if she thinks she needs more help
  • Make healthy snacks and meals for her; eating well in pregnancy is good for the baby and healthy food helps reduce the impact of alcohol on a fetus.

Questions About FASD

What can happen if I drink when I'm pregnant?
This is a very important question. Drinking alcohol in pregnancy can cause FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder). Basically FASD is a term that is use to describe the mental and physical effects that kids may experience if the mom drank alcohol while she was pregnant. Some effects of FASD are hyperactivity, poor memory, difficulty paying attention, and poor coordination. Some kids with FASD have certain physical features, others don’t look any different – everyone with FASD has brain damage from the alcohol. All kids with FASD have challenges with day to day activities and interacting with others. FASD never goes away, there is no cure, and the child will have it for life.

If someone doesn’t want to get pregnant they can access free or low cost birth control from a teen clinic or health centre. Teen clinics also do pregnancy testing and non-judgemental pregnancy counselling on all options: abortion, adoption, and parenting.

I've been drinking for a long time and I don't think I can quit. What should I do (I want to keep the baby)?
This can be a challenging situation. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. The effects of FASD can include lifelong physical, mental, cognitive and behavioural disabilities for the child. It can also be hard to quit drinking, especially if you use alcohol as a way of coping with difficult things in your life. Because you’re asking what to do, it sounds like having a healthy pregnancy is important to you and that you are looking for support.

Talking to an adult that you trust is important, someone who won’t judge you. If you believe you are addicted to alcohol, you may need help to cut down or quit. Try to connect with someone like a guidance counsellor or a nurse at your local teen clinic. Sometimes they can help you figure out ways to drink less or quit altogether.

Getting care early on from a pre-natal worker, nurse, midwife or doctor will help you have a healthier pregnancy. Other things that can help are spending time with people who aren’t drinking alcohol (this can make it easier to not drink) and eating well during pregnancy, especially eating more fruits and vegetables.

Please remember, you are not alone. There are many girls and women who use alcohol the way you are describing and pregnancy can be a great motivator in reducing the amount a person drinks. With help from caring adults and a pre-natal worker/nurse/midwife/or doctor who really want to see you succeed, you can make changes that can help improve your pregnancy.

My friend got totally hammered when she was pregnant and her baby is fine, what happened?
It’s a good question with no easy answer. We know that Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is caused by alcohol use during pregnancy. Some people with FASD have visible effects you can see (facial features), but other people with FASD have effects that you can’t see right away (behavioural challenges). Sometimes the effects of FASD don’t show up until kids are a little older or in school. The “invisible” effects of FASD are the learning challenges, difficulty paying attention and keeping relationships, and having poor impulse control.

Only a doctor can diagnose FASD and there are a lot of things that affect the likelihood of FASD like nutrition, pre-natal care, and caring people helping out. Every pregnancy is different. Some kids with FASD have siblings who aren’t affected even though the mom drank alcohol with all of them.

The way to avoid FASD is by avoiding alcohol during pregnancy. This can be easier to do when you have support from caring adults and spend time with people who don’t drink. Getting pre-natal care early on can make any pregnancy healthier because they monitor how things are going and try to help the mom get what she needs. A teen clinic or community health centre can provide info on all 3 pregnancy options and can help people who decide to have the baby have a healthier pregnancy.

I just found out I'm pregnant and I got totally drunk before I knew. I want to have it, but will the baby be ok?
There are 2 info lines that can help with questions about substance or alcohol use and pregnancy. Try calling the Alcohol and Substance Use Helpline, 1-877-327-4636 (Monday through Friday, 9 am – 5 pm) or the Options Hotline (by Canadians for Choice), toll free at 1-888-642-2725. Both are toll free and give confidential counselling and information over the phone.
How do drugs affect a pregnancy?
It really depends of the situation. Which drug, how much is used, and what else is going on (nutrition and health care for example) all affect a pregnancy. One really great website that deals with substance use and pregnancy is http://www.motherisk.org. They have an Alcohol and Substance Use Helpline, 1-877-327-4636 (Monday through Friday, 9 am – 5 pm). Try calling there for specific information about the effects of alcohol, nicotine and drugs like marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy on pregnancy. This service is confidential and the doctors and nurses on the phone can provide you with the most up to date information. You can also visit a teen clinic to get more information on the topic or get a free pregnancy test if you think you might be pregnant.