By Bev Drew and Marlene Dray
Over the past month many people who work in the field of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) research, prevention, or support of people with FASD, have been collectively concerned. That is because comments and headlines have been appearing in the media such as:
- “Moderate drinking in pregnancy not cause for alarm” (CBC)
- “Moderate drinking can mix with pregnancy, studies suggest” (Globe and Mail) and most recently
- “Pregnant? Have a drink!” (CKOM)
These headlines have appeared since the release of a study from Denmark. Mothers were asked about their drinking at the time they were pregnant. Five years later, their children were examined to see if drinking had effects on IQ, attention span, and executive functions such as planning, organization, and self-control. The study found that one to eight drinks a week had not harmed the children in these areas. Children of mothers who drank nine drinks or more a week had the risk of a low overall attention score when compared to children whose mothers did not drink. The publication still advises that no alcohol is still the safest option while pregnant.
It is always troubling when the media highlights one part of a study and leaves other important details in the smaller print. Many people just read the headlines and miss the other important information. It is also a concern when these kinds of results are publicized and other significant findings are not even included.
A major concern about this study is that five year old children’s brains aren’t fully developed. Many problems do not appear until they are attending school or are adolescents. Something else to keep in mind is that a 'drink' in Denmark is smaller than a standard 'drink' in the Canadian Low Risk Drinking Guidelines. Other factors such as the status of the mother’s health can also play a role in how alcohol affects the developing baby.
Dr. Susan Astley and Dr. Therese Grant are experts on FASD from the University of Washington. They have expressed serious concerns about the study based on the work they do in the field of FASD. Evidence from Astley and Grant’s work indicates that:
- One out of every seven children diagnosed with FAS (the most severe) had moms who had one to eight drinks a week. (The Danish study did not look for FAS).
- Half of the children with FAS had normal range developmental scores when they were preschoolers. They all had severe brain problems by the time they were 10. (The Danish study only looked at five year olds).
- Only 10 per cent of the children with FAS had attention problems by the time they were five. By the age of ten, 60 per cent had attention problems. (The Danish study only looked at attention in five year olds).
- Only 30 per cent of the children with FAS had an IQ below what is considered normal. 100 per cent had severe problems in other areas like language, memory and activity level. (The Danish study did not look at those areas).
Dr. Sterling Clarren, a world renowned researcher and Scientific Director from the Canada FASD Research Network, is also concerned about media coverage of this study. He wonders:
- Why do studies that show lower risks from drinking get more coverage?
- Why are stories written so people think that drinking is safer than the research shows?
He also points out:
- A conservative estimate is that alcohol causes brain damage in more than one in 100 individuals.
- It is very likely that some of the children whose mothers had one to eight drinks a week ‘will’ be found to have FASD when they get older.
- In a week, one drink a day is not as risky as having seven drinks at one time; however, they still both average seven drinks a week.
We can understand the sigh of relief that many women may have experienced when they read the headlines. After all, many of us may have had a drink or two, or more, while pregnant or before we knew we were pregnant. We do not want to hurt our babies; however, it is also tiring to be constantly told what we can and cannot do while pregnant.
For women who find out they are pregnant, and have had a drink or two, we encourage them to stop drinking now, if possible. This reduces the risk of harm to their baby.
Alcohol is a teratogen; a poison that can interfere with the developing fetus. It can cause birth defects or miscarriages. In order to keep our babies safe, many of us have avoided teratogens such as German Measles, x-rays, and mercury, while pregnant. Should we not want to avoid alcohol as well?
Bev Drew and Marlene Dray work for the FASD Prevention Program of the Saskatchewan Prevention Institute.