There is only one birth defect that is completely preventable, but only if the mother chooses not to drink alcohol during pregnancy. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is an umbrella term referring to the range of problems that can occur in an infant whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. Drinking alcohol can cause permanent disabilities, miscarriage, stillbirth and premature births. Prevention is the only choice.

FASD affects nearly 40,000 newborns (more than 1 percent of all births) annually in the United States. The cost of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) alone is estimated at $6 billion annually. The lifetime cost for one person with FAS exceeds $2 million. We cannot even begin to measure the human toll it takes. These physical, mental, behavioral and learning disabilities can cause lifelong heartbreak.

Take this short true/false quiz to see how much you know about the permanent damage that alcohol can cause.

1.    Beer and wine can affect a baby during pregnancy as much as hard liquor. True or False?

2.    It’s okay to drink one glass of wine a day during pregnancy. True or False?

3.    Alcohol includes all types of wine, beer, liquor and all medications containing alcohol. True or False?

 4.    It is not safe to drink alcohol during the last three months of pregnancy. True or False?

 5.    A woman’s partner, family, friends and health care providers are the most powerful influence on her decision not to drink during pregnancy. True or False?

 Answers:

1.    True. Some women do not consider beer or wine as alcohol. This is not true – beer and wine can cause damage just like stronger liquors. When a pregnant woman drinks, so does her baby.

2.    False. Even if a health care provider says “a little” drinking is okay, this is not true. Never drink during pregnancy.

3.    True. All types of alcohol, including medications containing alcohol, can damage a baby during pregnancy. No amount is safe.

4.    True. Never drink during or before pregnancy. Since nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned, it is best to stop drinking well before you decide to become pregnant to insure a healthy baby.

5.    True. In personal interactions with family and friends, don’t be silent; speak up about the lifelong heartbreak of FASD. Start a conversation with women of childbearing age about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy. Providing education and raising awareness is the most effective way to prevent FASDs.

A study published in the American Journal of Health Education found that most women recognize the risks of drinking during pregnancy. However, they have many misconceptions, including the belief that certain kinds of alcohol, small amounts of alcohol or drinking during the last three months of pregnancy will not harm the baby.

A spectrum disorder like FASD includes individuals on a continuum from mild to severely affected. The FASD spectrum includes: fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), partial fetal alcohol syndrome (pFAS),alcohol related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND), alcohol related birth defects (ARBD) and neurodevelopmental disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (Other Specified/ND-PAE).

Symptoms of FASD can include:

  • Abnormal facial features and small head size
  • Shorter than average height and low body weight
  • Low IQ, poor memory and impaired reasoning and judgment skills
  • Learning disabilities and delayed speech
  • Poor coordination
  • Hyperactive behavior and difficulty with attention
  • Vision or hearing problems
  • Problems with the heart, kidneys or bones

Simple screening for alcohol use can identify women who need help avoiding alcohol during pregnancy. It also provides the opportunity to give clear and consistent messaging to all pregnant women. Research shows that it is helpful to provide brochures and other information about a healthy lifestyle during pregnancy that include details about alcohol abstinence and the effects of alcohol on the fetus.

Women of childbearing age should always discuss with their health care providers how often and the amount of alcohol they drink.

Screening for alcohol use can be done in a doctor’s office. In many cases, providing the correct information and clearing up any misconceptions is all the mother will need for a healthy pregnancy. More advanced screening may be needed if a serious alcohol problem is evident. Laboratory-based tools can confirm the use of drugs or alcohol.

For more information about FASD:

Carol Rangel contributed to this article. She is program manager of the AECCS Project at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and serves on the FASD state task force.