Pregnant drinkers expose their babies
to a host of dangers

March 14, 1999

By Eric Newhouse  
Tribune Projects Editor

Pregnant mothers are advised that any amount of alcohol may harm their baby, though the effects will vary, doctors say.

Drinking at specific stages of pregnancy can affect different phases of development.

"The face and head of a fetus are formed during the first three weeks," said Cathy McCann, genetics counselor for Shodair Hospital in Helena. "How many women know they are pregnant during that first three weeks?

"A lot of other major malformations can occur someplace in the first three- to eight-week period, including problems with the heart and development of the cranium.

"The central nervous system, including the brain, is developing during the first four- to 20-week period, so when the hardware of the brain is being laid down, there is a chance of its being laid down wrong due to early alcohol abuse," McCann said.

There are some specific conditions associated with fetal alcohol exposure, however.

One is small size. FAS babies are frequently born prematurely and grow more slowly.

Skulls may be smaller than usual, eyes smaller, and the upper lip and nose smaller, as well.

Many are retarded. More than half of the FAS patients in one recent study had an IQ level of less than 70.

And evidence suggests that some children diagnosed with attention deficit disorder may be exhibiting symptoms of maternal alcohol abuse.

"Attention deficits characterize 75 to 80 percent of the patients with FAS, contributing to the difficulty with classroom learning during the school years and to major problems with employment during adolescence and adulthood," said Ann Streissguth of the University of Washington's fetal alcohol unit.

"A large proportion of patients with FAS/FAE have, in the past, become the responsibility of the community to raise and shelter because of the high rate of maternal death, termination of maternal rights and abandonment of these children," she said.

Her colleague, Dr. Robin LaDue, told a seminar in Great Falls last fall that about 69 percent of the mothers of FAS children die before the child's fourth birthday because of complications related to alcohol use.

FAS children are likely to fall behind in school at an early age and demonstrate increasing difficulty in handling concepts like English and math.

The University of Washington studied 661 FAS patients and found 70 percent had attention deficit disorders and nearly half had failed at least one grade in school.

More than half of the patients suffered from depression, and 80 percent of those older than 21 years were unable to live independently.

They were frequently in trouble 35 percent had been jailed at some point and 45 percent of them had demonstrated inappropriate sexual behavior.

More than a third of the FAS patients were themselves alcohol dependent, the study said.

Original Source:Great Falls Tribune March 14, 1999

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