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May 10 to 16, 2020
Mother’s Day marks the beginning of National Alcohol and Other Drug-Related Birth Defects Awareness Week, sponsored by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD).
This nationwide campaign hopes to raise awareness and educate people, especially women, of the dangers of using drugs or alcohol during pregnancy.
Drug and alcohol use during pregnancy is more common than the public might realize, though not because a woman necessarily has issues with substance abuse.
Why is Alcohol and Drug Use Common During Pregnancy?
According to NCADD, most women will not know they’re pregnant until four to six weeks into the term, at which point prenatal alcohol or drug consumption may have already done damage to the fetus. The national council reports the following data:
- 20 percent of pregnant women in the U.S. – around 1 million – smoke cigarettes
- 18 percent of women – about 750,000 – drink alcohol while pregnant
- 6 percent of women – an estimated 225,000 – use illicit drugs at least once during pregnancy
The most serious outcome for unborn children is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and other-alcohol related disorders that may lead to a spectrum of psychological, cognitive, behavioral and developmental problems that can last for a child’s lifetime.
A 2018 study, published in the Journal of American Medicine (JAMA), reports that these disorders in American children are at least as common as autism. This estimate is far higher than any previous ones.
“This is an equally common, or more common, disorder and one that’s completely preventable and one that we are missing,” Dr. Christina Chambers, a pediatrics professor at the University of California, San Diego, and one of the study’s authors, told the New York Times.
What are the Symptoms of FAS?
The constellation of FAS symptoms vary based on genetics, how much, and when a woman drank alcohol during pregnancy and can include some of the following conditions:
- Facial malformations, such as smaller bodies and heads, eyes that are unusually short in width, smoother-than-normal skin between the nose and mouth and thinly formed upper lips
- Central nervous system issues, like epilepsy, behavioral problems and poor coordination and concentration
- In less severe cases of these birth defects, a child might not show any physical signs of FAS, but be affected a one or more of the neurological issues
Awareness and Prevention of Substance-Related Birth Defects
Raising awareness about alcohol and drug-related birth defects is extremely important.
One of the many challenges in studying these issues is the guilt many women feel after giving birth and having their child diagnosed with FAS or a lesser neurological birth defect related to alcohol or drug consumption.
Prevention is vital, but even that messaging comes with controversy.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2016, released a statement recommending that sexually active women who are not using birth control should not drink alcohol at all.
The federal agency was immediately criticized, with some women saying the statement was less than practical and even insulting.
“We’re really all about empowering women to make good choices and to give them the best information we can so they can decide what they want to do themselves,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director at the CDC, said in response to the backlash.
At particularly high risk for drug and alcohol abuse during pregnancy are women struggling with substance abuse. Seeking alcohol rehab treatment is a sensible and healthy choice for any woman battling these issues, especially those planning to have a child in the future.
During Alcohol and Drug-Related Birth Defects Awareness Week, take the opportunity to learn more about these issues.
Education is key in preventing fetal alcohol syndrome and related birth defects. It also decreases the stigma related to substance abuse and allows those who need it the most, to ask for help.