Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) – Overview
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a preventable neurodevelopmental condition that can occur to babies exposed to alcohol while in the womb. Alcohol is a teratogen, a chemical which can affect development of the fetus.
It’s estimated that 3-5% of babies in Aotearoa have FASD, which means that every day in Aotearoa, around eight babies are born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. The exact number is not known but even this figure makes FASD more common than autism, Down Syndrome and cerebral palsy combined.
The main effect from alcohol exposure is permanent damage to the child’s brain. Alcohol affects the brain in many negative ways, leading to learning, social skills, and behavioural problems. But FASD is also known as a ‘whole of body’ disorder that can affect every part of the body.
It can be an invisible disability because very few people with FASD have the facial features many associate with the condition. FASD can also occur across a range of IQs, which can affect caregivers’ access to help and support.
There is NO known ‘safe’ amount of alcohol or a ‘safe’ time during pregnancy that a woman can drink alcohol. There is no cure for FASD and its effects last a lifetime.
How can FASD be prevented?
When you’re pregnant, every time you drink alcohol, your pēpi is drinking alcohol too. All alcohol is carried in your blood stream, through the placenta, to your baby. Your baby can’t break down alcohol like you can.
Being alcohol-free is best for you and your pēpi. There is no safe amount of alcohol and no safe time to drink when pregnant. It’s a myth that only ‘binge drinking’ can cause FASD. It can occur through drinking even relatively small amounts of alcohol.
If you’re trying to get pregnant or you are pregnant, the best thing to do is to stop drinking completely. However, around 49% of pregnancies in Aotearoa are unplanned, so if you find out you are pregnant and you have been drinking, stop immediately – it’s never too late and it will increase the chance of your baby being born healthy.
We understand that the reasons for alcohol use can be complicated and very difficult, so if you are having problems with alcohol, please contact… There is is a list of addition agencies here.
A recent excellent campaign in Australia called ‘Every Moment Matters’ is specifically about alcohol and pregnancy and has gained an enormous following across the country.
You can also find a recent downloadable panui/brochure on the subject from Alcohol Healthwatch Aotearoa (PDF).
When to talk to a Plunket nurse or doctor
There is no specific medical test for FASD. FASD diagnosis requires an assessment by a number of professionals, including a doctor and a psychologist. A diagnosis is based on:
- knowledge of a child’s exposure to alcohol before birth
- the diagnostic criteria for FASD in Aotearoa.
FASD may be diagnosed shortly after birth if there are facial features associated with the condition or in severe cases of fetal abnormality. To receive an FASD diagnosis there needs to be disclosure of alcohol consumption at any time during a pregnancy by the birth mother. It is important that you disclose this to your Plunket nurse and Doctor so there is a record of this if a diagnosis is later required. You do not need to be ashamed or embarrassed – it’s much better for your baby if you can be open about it.
Most commonly, diagnosis occurs much later, when the child is having problems with learning, behaviour, social and emotional skills or self-regulation. Sometimes the condition may never be diagnosed, or may be mistakenly diagnosed as an attention deficit disorder or autism.
If you drank alcohol while you were pregnant, and have concerns about the development of your pēpi or tamariki, talk to your Plunket nurse or your doctor. They may make a referral for your child to be assessed.
Managing FASD – resources you may find helpful
FASD cannot be cured, but it can be well managed and studies have shown that early intervention is key to allow tamariki to live their best lives. Help may be available in your area for learning, communication and behavioural issues or for intellectual disabilities.
If a diagnosis of FASD has taken place (or a child has been given the designation of ‘at risk for neurodevelopmental disorder and FASD, associated with prenatal alcohol exposure’) New Zealand’s FASD-CAN website (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Care Action Network) is a one-stop information and support website for caregivers, whānau, individuals and professionals.
FASD-CAN is committed to supporting the whānau of those with FASD in a non-judgmental way. It was formed by a group of parents in 2012 and most of their staff and board members have lived experience of FASD. Their ‘Understanding FASD’ and ‘Caregivers and Whānau’ pages are a great place to start.
Alcohol Healthwatch in NZ also have a range of FASD information links here.
Te Whatu Ora / Health NZ have an information section on FASD here.
HealthEd has also published a helpful downloadable booklet – ‘Alcohol and Pregnancy: What You Might Not Know’.
This information comes from Alcohol Healthwatch.