It’s a message now crystal clear: if you’re pregnant, or trying to get pregnant, don’t drink alcohol.
But there is still resistance that alcohol is dangerous, says Dr. Claire Coles, Ph.D, a professor of psychiatry and Director of Emory’s Neurobehavior and Exposure Clinic.
“I think some people do not accept that this is a real problem,” Coles says. “And, other people really cannot stop drinking.”
The problem? Fetal alcohol syndrome. Exposure to alcohol before birth can cause learning problems, attention difficulties, memory deficits and other complications. Coles, is an expert in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, or FAS. She says babies exposed to alcohol in the womb may be born premature, smaller than normal, easily irritable, and sometimes with distinct facial features.
“As the child gets older, they may have delays in development, motor problems, and problems in school,” Coles says.
That’s why experts warn no amount of alcohol is “safe” during pregnancy. And Coles believes alcohol can be especially damage to a developing baby.
“The child with FAS is much more severely affected than the child who has been exposed to cocaine, or heroin, or any of the opiates,” she says.
“Stacy,” whose 5-year old adopted daughter was diagnosed with FAS says there are lots of misconceptions about it.
“I think people, if they have even heard of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, they assume it’s the result of a baby who is born to an alcoholic,” she says.
But, Stacy says her daughter’s birth mother described herself in medical records as a light drinker.
“It was a woman who had irregular cycles for a long time, didn’t know she was pregnant,” Stacy says. “And would socially have a glass of wine a couple of times a week, just like many of us do. This was not someone who was finding herself in the bottom of a bottle of Jack Daniels.”
Stacy says they saw no signs of problems until her daughter l l started pre-K. They they noticed she wasn’t speaking as well as her peers, or learning as easily.
With Emory’s help, her daughter getting a lot of interventional support overcoming some of her learning challenges. Her daughter’s school has also made accommodations — allowing the kindergartner to sit close to the teacher, and providing a lot of one-on-one attention. Because she sometimes has difficulty processes what she hears and sees, the teacher repeats the instructions several times, to make sure her daughter understands them.
Coles says children who are diagnosed early and offered intervention tend to do better. Stacy agrees.
“You never want to know your child is dealing from some issues,” Stacy says. “But, the thing is, we already knew she had some issues. Only now we knew where they were stemming from.”
Stacy says it’s impossible to know for certain if light drinking will harm your baby.
“You just don’t know, so why take the chance?” she says.