Title: Cause and Defect: Drinking, Drugs and Pregnancy
Author: Lisa Turney
Publisher: Do It Now Foundation
Publication Date: January 2011
Catalog Number: 140

..Now & Then

We really have
come a long way — in some ways.

Two thousand
years ago, the ancient Greeks suspected that drinking could cause
problems during pregnancy, although they didn’t know why.

Today, science
knows how and why alcohol causes problems, but we still haven’t
done enough to spread the word about the risks of drinking during

That’s the
reason that warning labels from the U.S. Surgeon General have
popped up on containers for beer, wine and liquor lately, and
that’s the reason we’ve put together this pamphlet.

In it, we plan
to look under the labels at the real risks of drinking during
pregnancy and the tragedy of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. We’ll also
consider the effects of other drugs during pregnancy and discuss
how problems get started — and how they can be avoided.

We’ll even
include some simple steps for reducing the risk of problems in
your pregnancy.

Because even
though it may take centuries to make us aware of a problem, it
doesn’t have to take that long for us to do something about it.

..What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal Alcohol
Syndrome (FAS) is the name given to a set of birth defects triggered
by alcohol use during pregnancy. Although a link had been suspected
since ancient times, FAS wasn’t formally recognized until 1973.

Today, two
of every 1,000 U.S. newborns have FAS or its counterpart, Fetal
Drug Syndrome up from one in 1,000 just 20 years ago.

And for every
infant born with the full-blown symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome,
10 others suffer less severe alcohol-related problems.

..Which birth defects are caused by drinking?

Four main types
of birth defects are linked to drinking, including:

  • Mental
    is the leading cause of mental retardation in the United States
  • Impaired
    Babies born to
    drinking mothers are physically smaller than the babies of non-drinkers.
    Most never “catch up” as they grow older.
  • Facial
    FAS babies
    often have smaller-than-normal head size, misshapen eyes, and
    a flattened nose and face.
  • Organ
    Alcohol can
    disrupt organ formation and growth, causing defects in the heart,
    kidneys, muscles, joints, and sex organs.

Less severe
problems are known as “Fetal Alcohol Effects” (FAE).
They’re generally milder forms of the problems triggered by FAS,
but are just as preventable.

FAS symptoms
occur most often in children born to women who average five or
more drinks a day. Still, even a drink or two several times a
week can lead to problems.

..How does drinking cause birth defects?

The same way
a bomb causes a hole in the ground. When a person drinks, alcohol
races through the bloodstream to all parts of the body. . When
a person drinks, alcohol races through the bloodstream to all
parts of the body. If the person is a woman and the woman is
pregnant, it filters across the placenta and enters the bloodstream
of the fetus.

That’s where
problems begin.

Because the
fetal liver is only partially developed, it isn’t able to metabolize
and eliminate alcohol on its own.

That’s why
drinking even small amounts can cause big problems during pregnancy
because mom’s cocktail or wine cooler stays in the baby’s body
longer and in higher (and more harmful) concentrations.

Exactly what
happens next isn’t fully understood. Researchers think that problems
are linked to faulty cell development, since alcohol interferes
with production of proteins that serve as building blocks for
cells and nerves.

..Is one stage of pregnancy more critical
than others?

They’re all
important, but most experts agree that the most critical period
occurs during the first three months of pregnancy. That’s when
the brain, central nervous system, and other internal organ systems
begin to develop.

Drinking during
months four through six is linked with increased miscarriage,
while growth retardation is more likely to follow use during
the final three months of pregnancy.

And according
to one study, drinking during the last months of pregnancy is
also tied to a ten-fold increase in the risk of leukemia during
early childhood.

..Is drinking by the father harmful?

Maybe. Because
new research is beginning to support the suspicion that a father’s
drinking may also affect an unborn child.

The how and
why of that begins with the fact that long-term, heavy use of
alcohol affects people in different ways.

Some women
and men seem more susceptible to certain types of alcohol-related
damage than others. Certain drinkers, for example, develop liver
damage faster than others.

Since FAS is
linked to impaired cellular development and since new sperm cells
are produced in males throughout life, those men most vulnerable
to such damage could pass susceptibility on to their children.

..If I don’t drink every day, can I still
drink once in a while?

That depends
on what you mean by “once in a while.” If it means
every nine months or so — before and after pregnancy — the
answer is yes.

Because alcohol
really does affect different people in different ways. And that
goes for people-to-be, too.

The full set
of FAS defects is seen most often in the children of mothers
who report heavy drinking throughout their pregnancy.

In fact, research
shows that 45 percent of such women bear FAS-affected children
while another 20 percent give birth to babies with FAE and other,
less severe alcohol-related effects.

Still, just
cutting back isn’t enough to prevent problems, because a range
of problems can follow even limited drinking during pregnancy:

  • One to three
    drinks a day may slow growth and trigger FAS-like behavioral
  • “Subnormal”
    IQ scores are linked to as little as three drinks a day.
  • One or two
    drin ks a week may increase the risk of stillbirth and miscarriage.

Note that the
problems we’ve discussed apply equally to women who “binge”
drink during pregnancy. Today, researchers suspect that binge
drinking — which produces sudden, high levels of alcohol in
the bloodstream — can be just as dangerous as regular alcohol

And that’s
especially true if the binge occurs at a critical stage in fetal

..So there’s no such thing as “safe”
drinking during pregnancy?

As much as
we might wish there were, there simply isn’t a guaranteed “safe”
level of alcohol use during pregnancy. That’s why all alcohol
containers sold in the United States and Canada today carry explicit
messages, advising against any use during pregnancy.

Some doctors
go even further, warning women who are planning a pregnancy to
cut down on drinking three to six months before conception to
avoid problems. Others give the same advice to prospective fathers.

Some women
still think the warnings apply only to “real” alcohol
— like scotch or vodka. But today we know that what you drink
isn’t important, but how much and how often is. That’s because
a 12-ounce beer, a five-ounce glass of wine, or a mixed drink
all contain roughly the same amount of pure alcohol — about
half an ounce.

..What can I do to prevent problems?

All kinds of
things. Reading this pamphlet is a good start. If you’re not
pregnant or expecting to be, pass it on to someone you care about
who may be planning or expecting a child.

Because even
though we’re not sure about all the factors that can cause birth
defects, alcohol is the leading cause that we know about.

And the problems
it causes can be prevented if you just do two simple things:

  • If you’re
    pregnant or think you could be, stop drinking now.
  • If you have
    a drinking problem, talk to your doctor and get the help that
    you — and your baby — need.

Whatever you
need to do, do it now. Because even though a mother’s love can
seem pretty miraculous in healing a hurt or soothing a scraped
knee, sometimes the best love we ever give our kids starts before
they’re born.

That’s the
kind of love that really lasts a lifetime.

Now, here’s
looking at you, kid.

..Sidebar | Double
Trouble: Drug Dangers

Alcohol isn’t
the only drug that can cause problems during pregnancy — not
by a long shot. Experts guess that 15 percent of U.S. women of
child-bearing age currently use drugs. And many don’t quit until
after the first three months of pregnancy, if then.

So-called “Fetal
Drug Syndrome” effects can range from behavioral problems
to addiction and stillbirth. Damage depends on which drug is
used, when. Examples:

  • Crack/Cocaine: Higher risk of miscarriage, premature
    birth, and growth problems. Newborns may suffer seizures and
    heart defects, and show signs of neurological damage and addiction.
  • Marijuana:
    Slow growth, possible
    miscarriage, excitability or irritability in newborns.
  • Heroin: Addiction and withdrawal. Linked to
    breathing problems and higher levels of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
    (“crib death”).
  • AIDS: Women who inject drugs run a higher
    risk of contracting the virus that causes AIDS and passing it
    on to their unborn children.

This is one in a series of publications
on drugs, behavior, and health by Do It Now Foundation.
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