Baton Rouge -- Alcohol is the leading cause of brain damage in newborns, yet statistics show that half of all women of childbearing age drink alcohol. Most alarming is that about 20 percent of women who know they are pregnant continue to drink during their pregnancy. 

According to the March of Dimes and the American Academy of Pediatrics, the incidence of drinking during pregnancy has increased substantially in the past several years. 

David Hood, Secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals, said some people believe that one drink a day is healthy. 

“This is an entirely misleading message,” Hood stated. “The fact is there is no safe level of drinking during pregnancy. Even one incident of binge drinking during any point in pregnancy can result in alcohol related birth defects.” 

When a pregnant woman drinks, she is exposing her unborn child to alcohol and to its associated risks. The term Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders describes a number of disorders that can affect an unborn child if the mother drinks while pregnant. Fortunately, each of these disorders is totally preventable if the mother chooses not to drink during pregnancy. 

Fetal alcohol syndrome is the most severe disorder. Other problems include fetal alcohol effects (causes behavior disorders and attention deficits), alcohol-related birth defects (causes heart defects, sight and/or hearing problems, joint anomalies), and alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorders (that causes attention deficits, behavior disorders, obsessive/compulsive disorders). 

May is National Alcohol Related Birth Defects Month and DHH’s Office for Addictive Disorders is providing information and facts about drinking while pregnant. 

Each year in America, 5,000 infants are born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Although many of these individuals have mental retardation, most have an IQ in the normal range. Even those within the normal range will likely have serious problems with attention deficits, impulse control, judgment and memory.  

According to Sue Kennedy of OAD’s Region IX, the physical characteristics associated with fetal alcohol syndrome become less prominent after puberty, but the behavioral, social and emotional problems become more pronounced. 

“Most of these individuals will not be able to live or work independently,” Kennedy said. “In addition to brain damage, these children may also be born with physical defects including a low birthweight.” 

Other birth defects include facial characteristics (most noticeable between the ages of 2-10) include: a small head circumference; smooth, wide spaced eyes; thin upper lip; smooth, wide area above the upper lip; short, upturned nose; and a flat face. Even babies who do not have these abnormalities, may have serious neurological, behavioral and social problems associated with fetal alcohol syndrome. 

Another 35,000 to 50,000 babies are born each year with alcohol-related birth defects. These birth defects result in lifelong problems for affected individuals including: attention deficits, memory deficits, hyperactivity, poor problem solving skills, learning difficulties, immature behavior and emotional outbursts. 

Nationally, it is estimated that alcohol-related birth defects cost over $1.9 billion dollars annually.  Additionally, individuals with any of these birth defects also need early intervention services as they are at high risk of developing secondary conditions such as mental illness, trouble with the law, trouble with school, substance abuse and unwanted pregnancies. And, a majority of adults with alcohol-related birth defects are treated for clinical depression and 23 percent have attempted suicide. 

Michael Duffy, assistant secretary for the Office for Addictive Disorders, says alcohol produces more serious neurobehavioral effects in the fetus than drugs such as heroin or cocaine. 

“Educating women of childbearing age to the dangers of alcohol consumption during or while considering pregnancy is the only way to stop these birth defects,” Duffy said. “Women at highest risk of drinking during pregnancy include women who smoke, who are single, who are in college or have a degree, and women in households with incomes over $50,000.” 

For more information, contact Cheryl Klein or Sue Kennedy at 985-871-1383.