Thousands of babies are born every year in Ireland with foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), which occur when a foetus is exposed to alcohol in pregnancy, a public health specialist has warned.
FASDs cause life-long damage to a baby's developing brain and neurodevelopment and can lead to a range of problems throughout life, including hyperactivity, learning difficulties, behavioural problems, being smaller than expected, eating problems and mental health problems.
The most serious type of FASD is foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which can occur if a mother drinks heavily during pregnancy.
"The problems caused by FASD and FAS are permanent and irreversible. They are lifelong disorders. We do know that heavy or frequent drinking is more dangerous, and the more you drink, the greater the risk to your baby," explained Dr Mary O'Mahony, a specialist in public health medicine with the HSE.
She noted that the best available evidence estimates that around 600 babies are born every year in Ireland with FAS, while 5,000-6,000 are born annually with a less severe form of FASD.
A global study of 187 countries, which was published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics in 2017, estimated Ireland to have the third highest rate of FASD worldwide.
Dr O'Mahony advised women to give up alcohol for the duration of their pregnancy.
"The advice is consistent, clear, and unambiguous - no amount of alcohol at any stage of pregnancy is safe for your baby," she said.
She acknowledged that some people who drink alcohol regularly may find it hard to give it up for nine months, especially if everyone around them is drinking. Some might even feel under pressure to drink, especially if they have not yet told people that they are pregnant. She suggested the following tips for an alcohol-free pregnancy:
-Plan ahead and try to avoid triggers (people and places) that remind you of drinking
-If it feels right for you, share your reasons for not drinking with those close to you and ask them to support your decision
-Plan your social life to include alcohol-free activities.
"If you're thinking about becoming pregnant or you are already pregnant, avoid alcohol and seek support from family and friends to do that. If you find it hard to stop, please let a trusted friend or family member know who will support you to discuss in confidence with your GP, midwife or obstetrician.
"You can also call the HSE Drugs and Alcohol Helpline on 1800 459 459. These professionals will be happy to help and support you to have an alcohol-free pregnancy," commented Marion Rackard of the HSE Health and Wellbeing Alcohol Programme.
An expert advisory group on FASD prevention held its first meeting on September 1 of this year. It was chaired by Dr O'Mahony and its first priority is to work towards the consistent message that "no amount of alcohol at any stage of pregnancy is safe for your baby".
This issue was highlighted to coincide with FASD Awareness Day (September 9). For more information on alcohol during pregnancy, click on askaboutalcohol.ie/pregnancy.ie
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