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alcohol health alliance uk

No alcohol during pregnancy is safestů.warning for FASD Day

Karen Slater

Karen Slater

Posted 08/09/21

Balance is reminding North East families about the risks of drinking during pregnancy for International Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Day on 9 Sept.

It comes after a year which has seen millions more adults including parents with young children drinking at high-risk levels. (1)

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can raise the risk of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), a lifelong condition caused by exposure to alcohol in pregnancy, which can cause a range of physical, mental and behavioural problems for children.

Alcohol companies have been accused of fuelling drinking rates among women (2) through female-focused advertising linking alcohol with friendships and empowerment. And research has found alcohol industry information is less likely than independent health websites to provide information on FASD or to advise that no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy. (3)

Susan Taylor, Head of Alcohol Policy for Fresh and Balance, said: “Alcohol affects the lives of so many families in local communities and yet there is still such low awareness of FASD. It is also a concern that this last 18 months have seen such high levels of alcohol consumption.

“Pregnancy can be a confusing and scary time and we know there are lots of myths out there around drinking and pregnancy. The official advice from the NHS and Chief Medical Officer is that the safest option when you’re expecting or trying to conceive is to avoid alcohol altogether.

“But we need to look at the activities of alcohol companies which have massive budgets to spend on unrelenting promotion of Prosecco, glamorous looking gins and skinny seltzers, which we know particularly appeal to women.

“This has been a terrible year for many people which has resulted in millions of people drinking more than they would like to. More needs to be done to support women who wish to reduce their drinking – the Government should take measures to restrict the constant promotion of alcohol and ensure that alcohol products display appropriate health labelling, including warnings about the risks of drinking during pregnancy.”

NHS advice is that FASD is completely avoidable if you do not drink alcohol while you're pregnant. The risk is higher the more you drink, although there's no proven “safe” level of alcohol consumption in pregnancy. Not drinking at all is the safest approach.

A study published in the journal Addiction and funded by Cancer Research UK (not relating to FASD) recently found that during the first lockdown, the number of high-risk drinkers rose by 40%, meaning that, during the first lockdown, over 4.5 million adults would be classed as high-risk drinkers. This trend was particularly worrying in women (up 55%).

About FASD
• FASD Day is the 9th day of the 9th month, chosen to reflect the 9 months of pregnancy when alcohol needs to be avoided.
• Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder encompasses a series of preventable birth defects caused entirely by drinking alcohol at any time during a pregnancy.
• FASD is considered a hidden disability because most individuals with it do not show physical features. It is thought to be under-diagnosed.
• Symptoms can include vision impairment, sleep problems, heart defects, liver problems, a poor immune system, speech and language delays through to memory problems and behavioural problems such as impulsivity, hyperactivity and inappropriate social behaviour.
• The term “Spectrum” is used because each individual with FASD may have some or all of a spectrum of mental and physical challenges. In addition, each individual with FASD may have these challenges to a degree or “spectrum” from mild to very severe.
• FASD is caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Alcohol in the mother’s blood passes to the baby through the umbilical cord.
• There is no known safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy or when trying to get pregnant.

Karen’s story

Karen Slater is a Newcastle mum of four. She drank during one of her pregnancies after suffering a lifetime of abuse. Her daughter was diagnosed with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) two years ago.

Growing up in a hostile and dangerous environment, a victim of child abuse and domestic violence, Karen sought solace in alcohol, drugs and self-harm. In 1994 she fell pregnant for the second time while in an abusive relationship.

“During my second pregnancy I was nervous and anxious all of the time. I would drink wine or vodka and lemonade as it helped me to relax. There was a lot talked about not eating certain foods in pregnancy and no smoking, but even in the 90s, there was little information and mixed messages about the risks of alcohol. I was anaemic and people would say a Guinness was good for you. They were the kind of myths we were led to believe.

“I grew up around alcohol. No one solved problems in my life – they were just numbed out. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, living with an abusive partner, with one daughter and another on the way. I felt worthless and inadequate as a mother, girlfriend and daughter – so I drank.”

When Karen’s daughter was born, she struggled to feed and cried almost constantly. By this time, Karen had left her partner and was bringing up her two young children as a single parent.

“We were often at the doctors or the hospital with my daughter. She had hearing problems and breathing problems. As a toddler, she struggled to give cuddles and kisses. She couldn’t sit still and would throw things around. When we went to play group, her behaviour was very different to the other children. People wouldn’t invite us round to their houses.

“Physically she had small legs, a thin upper lip and smooth philtrum. When she was in school, we were told she had learning and behavioural difficulties and thought it was ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). She had a bad memory and struggled with her speech. It was like she had made up her own language.

“Early on it was apparent that she wasn’t learning from consequences. She would get into trouble, but it just kept happening. We tried all sorts of therapies, but no one knew what to do for the best.”

Karen’s drinking was still there in the background until she hit rock bottom and knew she had to seek help. She became sober when her daughters were 13 and 10, but the issues with her younger daughter only became more apparent.

“When my daughter was a teenager, she was often in accidents and would end up in hospital or in a police cell. She fell into her own problems with alcohol and drugs. It was scary.

“The kids she was hanging round with knew she was vulnerable but would tell her to do something, like steal DVDs, and she would just do it. She had no respect for authority, but I was so worried about her as I knew she was being exploited. She was regularly in trouble with the police and getting ASBOs. The physical problems with her feet, knees, joints, ears and asthma continued too, and her moral judgement just wasn’t there. I didn’t know what to do. To the outside world, she appeared ‘normal’, but she couldn’t hold down relationships or jobs and even now has no concept of time or money.

“She’s 27 now but she struggles with the social cues people take for granted. She will often offend people and has a lack of empathy – but she doesn’t understand and keeps repeating the same mistakes. She has found football and boxing which she enjoys and they help her to stay on track.”

“It has been hard to get over the guilt. FASD is lifelong but preventable. Nine months is a short time not to drink – compared to a lifetime of hardship for the whole family. Even now, life is chaotic and frightening. No two days are the same, but despite the challenges, my family is doing well and we have a lot to be thankful for.

“A lot of FAS children get lost in the system or misdiagnosed. We only got the diagnosis three years ago even though I was always open and honest about my drinking. I recognised the signs of FASD in my daughter when she was a teenager but it was through the FASD Network, I heard more about the disability which is so often ‘invisible’ in society.”

Today Karen is doing everything she can to raise awareness of the impact the cycle of alcohol abuse has had on her and her family. She is a member of the FASD Network (based in the North East) and regularly gives talks on her experiences. Her first book ‘My Journey Through Hell’ was published last year. She hopes that speaking out will help to break the stigma around the issues and encourage mothers to seek help.

“There is still a lot of shame around drinking in pregnancy. It’s hidden away and isn’t talked about enough. That’s why I decided to break my anonymity and speak out. If you’re pregnant and struggling, I urge you to seek help from your midwife. Don’t keep it a secret. There are amazing people out there who will support you without judgement. I hate the thought of anyone struggling and feeling alone because I’ve been there myself.”