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Rates of Children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders are Higher than Expected

Update Date: Oct 28, 2014 09:29 AM EDT
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Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can be extremely dangerous for the unborn child. Although pregnant women are advised to stay away from alcohol, a new study found that the rates of children born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) are higher than previously expected.

"Knowing not to drink during pregnancy and not doing so are two different things," especially before a woman knows she is pregnant, said lead researcher Philip May, a professor of public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, reported by Medical Xpress.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), FASDs include "a group of conditions that can occur in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy." At the most severe end of the spectrum is fetal alcohol syndrome, which is characterized by symptoms such as abnormal facial features, structural brain abnormalities, developmental issues and behavioral problems. Some physical indicators of FASDs are small eye openings, smaller heads and a smooth upper lip that might have a red border.

For this study, the researchers examined the average alcohol consumption rate per year in a small Midwest town. The town was nationally representative and had 32 schools with more than 2,000 children in the first grade. Out of this group of children, roughly 70 percent of them were allowed to participate in the study. May and his team administered cognitive and behavioral tests to the first-graders. They also measured the children's height, weight and head circumference.

Overall, the average annual alcohol consumption rate was around 14 percent higher than the nation's average annual rate of alcohol intake. The rate of children with FASD was also higher than expected. The team found that about six to nine children out of 1,000 had fetal alcohol syndrome. Roughly 11 to 17 children out of 1,000 had partial fetal alcohol syndrome.

The researchers pinpointed certain factors that increased risk of FASDs, which were the length of time it took the mother to realize she was pregnant, the frequency of alcohol intake three months into pregnancy and the amount of alcohol the father consumed.

"There is no safe amount of alcohol or safe time to drink during pregnancy, or when planning on becoming pregnant," Dr. Lana Popova, a senior scientist at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health and an assistant professor of epidemiology and of social work at the University of Toronto, said. "If a woman is unaware of her pregnancy, for whatever reason, she should discontinue drinking immediately upon pregnancy recognition."

The study was published in the journal, Pediatrics.

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