Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can harm your unborn baby.

Babies exposed to alcohol before birth may develop fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). FASD can cause problems including:

  • low birth weight
  • distinctive facial features
  • heart defects
  • behavioural problems
  • intellectual disability.

There is no cure for FASD and its effects last a lifetime.

If you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, the safest option is drinking no alcohol.

Alcohol and the risk to unborn babies

If you drink alcohol during pregnancy, your unborn baby is exposed to similar levels of alcohol as you are. The alcohol crosses from your blood through the placenta and into the baby’s bloodstream.

Alcohol can:

  • stop your unborn baby’s nervous system (including the brain) from developing properly
  • prevent your baby from getting all the nourishment they need
  • cause changes in the development of your baby’s face, resulting in the typical FASD facial features.

In severe cases, babies affected by FASD may die before they are born.

Risk factors for FASD

FASD occurs in babies exposed to alcohol during pregnancy, but not all babies exposed to alcohol develop FASD.

The biggest risk factors are:

  • the amount of alcohol drunk
  • how often alcohol is drunk throughout the pregnancy.

Frequent binge drinking puts your baby at the most risk.

Where to get help

If you’re pregnant and worried that your drinking might be harmful, talk to your GP or midwife.

The Alcohol Drug Helpline is also available for free, confidential information, help and support:

  • 0800 787 797 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week.)
  • visit their website
  • free text 8681.

Diagnosing FASD

If you drank alcohol while you were pregnant, your child should be assessed for FASD. An accurate diagnosis is important. It can help your child to get the care they need and prevent FASD happening again in any later pregnancy.

There is no specific medical test for FASD. A diagnosis requires input from a range of professionals including a doctor and a psychologist. It will be based on:

  • their knowledge of your child’s exposure to alcohol before birth
  • the diagnostic criteria for FASD

In severe cases, FASD may be diagnosed at birth, but often the diagnosis occurs later, when the child is having problems with learning or behaviour. Sometimes, the condition may never be diagnosed.

If you’re worried about your child, talk to your GP or Well Child nurse.

Treating FASD

FASD cannot be cured but it can be managed. While New Zealand does not currently have FASD-specific treatment and support programmes, help may be available in your area to address issues such as learning, communication and behaviour.

Talk to your GP or Well Child nurse about getting help for your child. If your child is at school, you can also talk to their teacher.

Please note that the government is currently developing more targeted supports through the FASD Action Plan.

The occurrence of FASD is unknown

FASD is considered internationally to be the leading preventable cause of intellectual and developmental problems – however, there’s evidence that it’s under-diagnosed.

Researchers estimate that FASD occurs in 1 in 100 children, but the rates vary from study to study. Reasons include that:

  • parents and doctors may not realise that FASD is the cause of a child’s developmental problems
  • maternal intake of alcohol varies during a pregnancy and can be difficult to accurately record
  • alcohol may not be the only drug consumed during pregnancy
  • other factors can contribute to learning and behavioural problems – many children diagnosed with alcohol-related problems are exposed to social difficulties that may also impact on their development.
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