If you’ve ever read the orange sticker on wine bottles, you know that drinking alcohol during pregnancy poses risks to fetal development. This widespread awareness may give the false confidence that birth defects from alcohol are a thing of the past. It’s a common misconception that Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is exclusive to children of mothers who have drinking problems to blame.
On the contrary, Health Canada estimates 30 for every 1,000 live births in Canada are affected by the broad spectrum of permanent neurological and physical disabilities termed as FASD. Multiple organizations offer support to parents and educators faced with the challenge of caring for a child with FASD.
However, few organizations in Canada offer direct assistance to the mother beyond alcohol-withdrawal programs. FASD is not simply an alcoholic’s problem and there are no clear demographic trends in the mothers.
Why? After reviewing the research and speaking with community nurses, it is clear the general public’s misinformed confidence in our current drinking habits and resulting disdain towards affected mothers attributes to the widespread rates of FASD.
In my nursing experience, I have also witnessed the prejudice faced by these children and their mothers. If the general community doesn’t see and commit to stopping a problem, we will never have enough voice to fix it.
To reduce FASD, we must go beyond vague warnings and blame to move towards accurate prevention and an understanding of the impact on not only the child but also the mother.
The first thing to understand is the nature of the risk. Alcohol is the most harmful substance to fetal development, causing worse damage than cocaine or marijuana. Although other substances are harmful, they do not have the same life-long impact.
Each case of FASD is unique, making it easy to overlook or misdiagnose. The amount and timing of harmful alcohol consumption is unknown. A drink at any point in the pregnancy is a risk: conception to birth.
Now consider that drinking is central to social culture, including women of reproductive age, and that 50 per cent of pregnancies are unplanned. How many of these pregnant women stopped drinking directly after conception? Do we dare calculate the frequency of prenatal alcohol exposure? More than we care to admit.
There is a clear disconnect in our attitudes towards drinking in young women, family planning and FASD. Neglect of this issue means prevention is not geared towards this “pre-pregnancy test” exposure and those non-alcoholic mothers are left to deal with the shock and blame of their child’s FASD on their own.
It’s time we take back our blame and stigmatization of affected mothers and rethink our culture’s drinking patterns prior to conception. It’s only once we change our attitudes, we can initiate appropriate support for affected families and simultaneously prevent future cases of FASD.
What exactly these accommodations and family planning will look like, the community will have to determine.
All I know is that it will take more than an orange sticker on a bottle.