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Understanding the Risks of Alcohol and Drug Use During Pregnancy

Understanding the Risks of Alcohol and Drug Use During Pregnancy

There is no amount or type of alcohol, including beer and wine, that is safe to consume at any time during pregnancy. Drinking during pregnancy can damage the developing fetus, increase the risk of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs), and possibly cause a miscarriage or stillbirth.

What are FASDs?

FASDs refer to a group of conditions that affect a child whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, it passes through the umbilical cord to the baby, potentially causing harm. Resulting conditions may include lifelong physical, behavioral or learning problems, or a combination of problems.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children with FASDs might exhibit:

  • Smaller-than-average head size
  • Sleep and eating problems
  • Shorter-than-average stature
  • Reduced body weight
  • Difficulty with coordination
  • Hyperactivity
  • Attention challenges
  • Memory challenges
  • Academic challenges
  • Learning disabilities
  • Difficulty with speech and language
  • Impaired reasoning and judgment
  • Vision or hearing challenges

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the most severe form of FASD, responsible for facial abnormalities, growth problems, and nervous system disorders in affected individuals.

Alcohol is harmful at all stages of pregnancy and continues to pose a risk for children that are breast-fed. The first trimester can be particularly problematic, as a woman may not realize she is pregnant and does not curtail drinking behavior.

When alcohol reaches a fetus during the first trimester it can cause cell damage, physical abnormalities, and damage to developing organs, including the brain. Brain and other organ development continue throughout the pregnancy and can be damaged at any stage.

How to Help Those Affected by FASDs

MedlinePlus, part of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, says it is possible to increase the quality of life for those born with FASDs and to help them “reach their full potential” by:

  • Obtaining a diagnosis before the age of 6
  • Ensuring a stable home environment during the school years
  • Providing an environment free of violence
  • Enrollment of child in special education and social services programs

It’s never too late to stop drinking during pregnancy. The sooner alcohol intake stops, the better it is for the developing fetus.

Drug Use During Pregnancy

Drugs taken during pregnancy can have a devastating impact on the fetus. Drug use increases the risk of birth defects, premature birth, underweight babies and stillborn births. Both illegal and prescription drugs can cause damage.

Of special concern is the use of opioids by pregnant women. A recent CDC analysis says babies born to women with opioid use disorder are found to have more serious negative health outcomes, including preterm birth, stillbirth, maternal mortality and neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS).

The developing brain of the fetus can also be damaged by drug use, resulting in a lower IQ and permanent deficits in cognitive performance, information processing and attention to tasks. Drug use has also been linked to heart and urinary tract defects and to an increased risk of stroke in the unborn fetus.

Babies born to women who used drugs while pregnant may be born addicted and experience withdrawal symptoms upon birth.

It is vital for all individuals to be educated about the dangers that alcohol and drugs present to children, both during gestation and after birth.

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