By DR. SELENA SEABROOKS
The Dallas Examiner
Approximately 1 in 9 pregnant women reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days, and about one-third of those women reported binge drinking. Of those who reported binge drinking, an average of 4.5 binge-drinking episodes were reported during that same 30-day time period.
Recently, the Texas Health and Human Services Office of Disability Prevention for Children presented on fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. The event was facilitated by HHSC ODPC Program Manager Jay Smith and included presenters Kynthia Brooks, program development specialist; and Dr. Sherry Sellers Vinson, retired developmental pediatrician and associate professor of pediatrics.
The ODPC works to promote respect, foster understanding and highlight the importance of prevention and early intervention initiatives in the lives of Texas children and families. They seek to prevent developmental disabilities, including those that manifest in utero and during birth, in children ages 0 to 12.
Common myths associated with pregnancy and alcohol
Smith discussed some of the common myths surrounding pregnancy and alcohol.
“Women who drink during pregnancy know about the risks, the dangers, but just don’t care about potential risks,” she stated. ‘And we know that’s not true.”
Other myths include it being safe to drink wine and wine coolers during pregnancy or a small amount of alcohol later in pregnancy.
“Some women believe that it’s okay to drink in the last trimester, and that’s not the case,” Smith stated.
Last, she added that not all women who drink during pregnancy suffer a substance abuse disorder.
“Yes, many do, but that’s not always the case as well,” Smith explained.
Brooks explained that when women drank alcohol during pregnancy, their children can be born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders – known as FASDs.
“It could be in any of the trimesters – the first through the third trimester – and can significantly impact the fetus. We don’t know if it could be one drink or several drinks,” Brooks stated.
The spectrum of FASDs include:
- Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – characterized by abnormal facial features, growth deficiencies and central nervous system problems.
- Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder – characterized by neurological, structural and/or functional issues.
- Alcohol-Related Birth Defects – characterized by problems with the heart, kidneys, bones and/or hearing.
- Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – diagnosis used when the infant does not meet the full FAS diagnostic criteria but was exposed to alcohol before birth, presents some facial abnormalities, a growth problem and malfunctions of the central nervous system.
An estimated 40,000 newborns are affected by FASDs each year, with birth defects ranging from subtle to major. In 2018, FASDs impacted as many as 1 in 20 first-graders in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
FASD is 100% preventable. However, there are some factors that may contribute to a woman’s use of alcohol during pregnancy. For example, many women drink before knowing they are pregnant. On the other hand, some women have been given incorrect information about the risks of drinking during pregnancy, and some women may need help to stop drinking, Brooks explained.
Effects, recognition and prevention
“Fetal alcohol exposure is really the most preventable cause of developmental disabilities, and actually, it’s the leading known cause of preventable intellectual disability,” Vinson said.
She stated that the U.S. spends $205 billion annually to address the problems caused by FASDs – approximately $17.94 billion per year is spent in Texas.
A 2017 study found that in 1,000 babies born in Texas, 8% were exposed to alcohol within 30 days before birth, with the highest prevalence being observed in mostly urban, high-median income regions.
The impact of exposure varies from individual to individual and is depended upon various factors that include:
- The vulnerability of a particular fetus.
- The mother’s and father’s genetics.
- Maternal factors such as nutrition, age and health.
- If the mother had a previous child that was exposed to alcohol or other drugs.
Access to diagnostic assessments.
Vinson went on to discuss the signs and symptoms of FASDS, which include facial dysmorphia, such as a flat midface, short nose, thin upper lip and minor ear anomalies; growth problems; and central nervous system abnormalities.
“Early management of depression is very, very important, even to prevent kids from drinking alcohol so that they won’t get into the habit of treating their depression with alcohol and then become a parent of somebody who has a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. But, also managing the depression of mothers and fathers also is important in prevention,” she conveyed.
Raising a child with FASD
Carissa Dorris, a certified trauma competent caregiver and trauma trainer, shared her personal story of raising her adoptive son who has a FASD. Her son was in-utero exposed and experienced in-utero trauma. He was diagnosed with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome and was sent to the NICU after birth to address his withdrawal.
Dorris’ son experienced many medical and developmental issues in his early years, including digestive issues, delay in speech, problems getting to sleep, a need for lots of stimulation, aversion to comfort, touch and eye contact and fine motor skills delay.
“We noticed very early on that he didn’t want to color. It was almost painful to work with the crayons. When he would run and get those motor skills going, his hands would go floppy. He wouldn’t point well. Button tying, shoelaces tying – he was just not there,” she explained.
The turning point occurred when he turned 4, Dorris joined a support group where she learned about sensory processing disorder, TBRI and read a book titled Connected Child.
She discussed the strategies she used to address her son’s early challenges. Those included sensory enrichment activities that engaged all five of her son’s basic senses, early intervention with TBRI, prioritized monitored social opportunities and dosed tutoring. She then spoke about the continued work to improve her son’s condition and the importance of planning for success.
For those interested in learning more about substance abuse and services, HHS offers outreach, screening, assessment and referral programs – known as OSAR. The program offers also offers case management and peer support services. For more information, visit https://www.hhs.texas.gov or call 877-541-7905 or 2-1-1 to be connected.