MAXWELL:  Mothers-to-be should think before they drink

11/28/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Thanksgiving has come and gone, and the season to be jolly is in full swing.

For the pregnant woman who drinks alcohol, this could be a dangerous time for her unborn child. According to the Institute of Medicine, thousands of pregnant women succumb to the festive allure of the holidays and wind up drinking when they otherwise would not.

Women who drink heavily put their unborn child at particular risk of being afflicted with fetal alcohol syndrome, a condition known to cause long-lasting or permanent problems. Alcohol consumption also causes other fetal alcohol effects, including a condition known as alcohol-related neurodevelopment disorder.

The institute estimates that more than 12,000 children are born with profound FAS each year in the United States. The March of Dimes, which battles birth defects, estimates that 50,000 children a year are born with less severe alcohol-related problems. All forms of FAS are characterized by subnormal growth, muscle and heart damage and low intelligence and mental retardation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that FAS occurs in 4 out of 10 infants born to women who are alcoholics or abusers of alcohol.

I am especially concerned about FAS because I have several relatives _ cousins, nieces and nephews _ who are the innocent victims of their mothers’ bad habits. Unfortunately, the majority of the these children have the facial flaws characteristic of the ailment: flattened groove between the nose and upper lip, upturned nose, small eyes, flat cheeks and small heads. They also have trouble eating, seeing, hearing and sleeping. Most will require medical care, special teachers and special schools all of their lives.

For most of these kids, their condition went undiagnosed until they had become full-fledged behavior problems in school or were behind bars. Patricia Tanner-Halverson of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome said such children tend to be poor at problem-solving, have poor memory, have trouble concentrating, cannot learn well, are easily distracted and act impulsively. These traits are a recipe for run-ins with authority.

I do not want to demonize women, particularly the poor women in my family, but they need to become more concerned about alcohol abuse during pregnancy. Many of the circumstances of their lives _ economic instability, living single, the need for instant gratification _ make the so-called “pleasure drugs,” such as booze, attractive.

Some studies show that FAS has become more troublesome in recent years because health care officials and politicians have paid more attention to crack cocaine and other illicit drugs while virtually ignoring alcohol and its effects.

Pediatricians nationwide report that alcohol disorders are among their biggest challenges. Prevention (stopping mothers from drinking) is only part of the crisis. The other part, which is often daunting, is diagnosing FAS and treating the young victims. In too many cases, the condition is not correctly diagnosed until the child is a teenager and has had a violent confrontation, dropped out of school, been suspended or expelled, or has become addicted to another hard drug.

Obviously, poor families fare far worse than their wealthier counterparts when FAS is involved. Many children, for example, need expensive surgery to correct deformities. When families cannot afford the procedures, the kids suffer unnecessarily. I know because I have seen many of my relatives languish in misery or die far too young because they did not receive proper treatment.

At what point does alcohol put a fetus at risk? How much can a pregnant woman safely drink? Some doctors say that low to moderate consumption is all right. Others, however, warn expectant mothers to avoid all booze. Some professionals say the fetus is at greatest risk of FAS at the beginning of the pregnancy; others say near the time of birth; still others argue that the unborn is at risk throughout gestation.

The best advice?

Pregnant women should avoid alcohol during this holiday season and throughout their pregnancy.

The type of booze _ beer, wine or hard stuff _ does not matter. Many pregnant women seem to forget that alcohol moves quickly and efficiently through the blood stream. When a mother drinks, her fetus drinks.