The CDC and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder: A Mother’s Perspective

posted in: Special Needs | 27

The CDC has angered a lot of women this week with it’s suggestion that women of childbearing age, who do not have permanent birth control in place abstain from alcohol. Their reasoning?

“An estimated 3.3 million US women between the ages of 15 and 44 years are at risk for exposing their developing baby to alcohol because they are drinking, sexually active, and not using birth control to prevent pregnancy.”

The truth about the CDC and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

Women all over are up in arms about this sexist approach to alcohol and babies. After all (as I am reading all over the internet) where is the man’s responsibility in all of this? Why is it all on the woman? I have news for you, this is about biology, not women’s rights. Like it or not, women carry babies in their uterus, men do not. If I became pregnant today, my husband could get drunk every day of the pregnancy with no ill effects on fetal development. Me? One drink at the wrong moment in development could lead to a cascade of health issues for my unborn baby. Daily drinks would almost certainly lead to damage of some sort.

Did you know Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is the number one cause of preventable mental retardation? Or to use more current terms, brain damage and developmental delays? Put another way, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is one of the most common causes of mental retardation and is the only one that is 100% preventable. The effects are irreversible and last a lifetime.

The CDC is not trying to take away your fun. The  CDC is not trying to repress you. The CDC is not trying to set feminism back a hundred years. The CDC is trying to keep babies from being brain-damaged. And it’s not just a lower IQ we are talking about. 

A report from Canada states that out of 400 individuals with FASD:

90% experienced mental health issues

60% had a disrupted school experience 

60% had trouble with the law

30% had drug or alcohol problems

tiny african american baby

This topic is near and dear to my heart because my 13-year-old son suffers daily from the effects of prenatal alcohol. Nothing comes easy for him.

Nothing.

Part of the CDC’s tough stance comes, I believe, from the still pervasive myth that “a little alcohol” isn’t harmful. I still regularly see people post in mother’s groups that their doctor, or even midwife recommended a glass of wine to relax or hold off pre-term labor. The myth is, a little is okay. You also don’t have to go far to hear or read, “I drank during my pregnancy and my baby was perfectly healthy”. Perhaps, but my son is not okay. He struggles to learn, he struggles to keep up with his peers, he struggles with social skills and emotions. He has a low IQ. He will never live up to his genetic potential. Never.

The statistics for a kid like him are positively grim.

This isn’t about women’s rights and feminism. This is about my son. About your children. About the next generation. No one is telling you not to drink. The CDC is warning you not to take any chances when it comes to drinking during pregnancy. 

I happen to think our babies are worth it.

Resources: 

NoFAS: National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

FASD Center for Excellence

Center for Disease Control

Living with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder 

Washington Post: This Mother Drank While Pregnant, This is What Her Daughter is Like at 43.

 

 

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27 Responses

  1. I’m glad you weighed in – living with (as in, in the same house with) FASD puts you in a unique position with a much-needed voice. It’s a horrible disorder, one my sister struggles with as well. (We were both adopted as toddlers.)

    My huge beef with the CDC’s report was that it pretty much boiled down to the brilliant recommendation that card-carrying members of the x-chromosome club ought to either be using contraception throughout the entirety of their childbearing years, or teetotaling. It’s laughable that the government recommends that I pump my tricky, dangerous female body full of class one carcinogens for 3+ decades as the alternative. And I have no doubt that their next recommendation, should both of those fall through, would be abortion! They are NOT for women, they are NOT for kiddos born with FASD, they are NOT for anyone’s best interests, in my mind.

    I agree, though, drinking while pregnant is nothing to mess around with. I do hope people will take caution and restraint to heat.

    • bakersdozenandapolloxiv

      Thank you for your input. I am not saying I agree with the CDC, I am saying, don’t drink if there is *any* chance you could be pregnant. It is still so common for doctors to say “a little is okay” and it’s not. Also, people do not understand the reality of what it does to children.

    • The most effective form of birth control is an IUD, which doesn’t need the user to take any hormones or chemicals to work properly. It also doesn’t require the user to remember to take a pill or renew a shot at regular intervals. I think every woman who doesn’t want to get pregnant should use some form of birth control that is under her control. Men, unfortunately, can’t always be relied on.

      • Actually an IUD is hormonal birth control, please read up on this. There is very little difference between what a pill exposes you to and what an ID exposes you to. Also, I conceived my son while I had an IUD in so while largely effective there is no guarantee and it was a very scary process waiting to know if he was going to make it.

        • bakersdozenandapolloxiv

          Some IUDs are hormonal and some are copper. I am not making an argument for them either way. Even the hormonal ones are different than birth control. Birth control uses both estrogen and progesterone. Hormonal IUD’s use just progesterone. This is an important differentiation. My mom and I both have a blood clotting disorder that makes estrogen dangerous to us (my mom had a stroke from the birth control pill) while a hormonal IUD (using only progesterone) is safe.

  2. I actually abstained from alcohol while trying to conceive except for about 10 days a month, those starting when my period did. I’m not a more than one glass drinker outside of that anyway but I didn’t want to take a chance. I was at an event one time with an older friend when a mutual acquaintance was surprised when I turned down a beverage and asked “you don’t drink?” To which my friend replied “depends on where in the month we are.” Confused the person to no end but I appreciated my friend supporting me.

    Unfortunately health recommendations made by such agencies as the CDC have to be very black and white. If there’s room for interpretation, it will happen. They say that women should be on birth control but simply being responsible about birth control in general, by whatever means, will aid this battle a lot. Unplanned pregnancy occurs more than one way and in my opinion failure to use birth control is more generally the cause than failure of any pregnancy prevention means.

    • bakersdozenandapolloxiv

      Yes, I believe they are trying to be very black and white. I personally think many secondary issues (ADD, ADHD, behavioral issues) are caused by alcohol exposure and just not recognized as such. It is obvious by the FB comments and blog posts that people do not realize the full seriousness of alcohol during pregnancy.

  3. well said

  4. I think the backlash is in large part related to the pervasivNess of alcoholism in America. I rarely drink and have frequently been challenged about “why not” I can explain my family history but people still often find it a very odd decision. For many people “having fun” is synonymous with drinking and I think that’s what a lot of women hear, “don’t have fun”.

    The other thing I wonder about is how offensive this may have sounded to women whose children had birth defects. I was frequently asked if my daughter’s cleft was caused by something I was taking (prescription or otherwise ) or not eating right, not taking folic acid etc. Those questions anger me, in part because my children were VERY planned. But I do wonder for the moms whose kids maybe have less severe issues than FASD but had something to drink before discovering they were pregnant.

    Personally, I think the CDC statement should simply have been that NO amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy rather than giving directives to women about their reproductive choices.

    • bakersdozenandapolloxiv

      As soon as the connection between Zoran and heart defects came out I started getting asked by friends and family if I took it during my pregnancy with Apollo (I did not). I will say, in the beginning, even the term “defect” was distasteful to me when applied to my son. But labels are just labels. His heart *is* defective. And yes, of course, there is a stigma attached to FAS. I agree, with out about the CDC statement, but have been shocked at the outrage on the internet over it.

  5. I think the message IS important, but I think it is missing something. I think there should also be a recommendation to men. A message that says, “If you are going to have sex with a woman who is drinking, take matters into your own hands, be responsible and wear a condom.” Condoms are not 100% effective, but then neither are other birth control methods except for abstinence. It takes two people to make a baby, and the responsibility should be on both parties. Some people took their message as controlling women and telling them that their fun has restrictions on it. Men don’t carry the child, but they can minimize the potential of damaged children at the time of conception. Men’s fun has restrictions too. I think the CDC’s message to women would have been better received if a message to men were delivered at the same time.

    • bakersdozenandapolloxiv

      The thing is it takes anywhere from 24 -72 hours for an egg to be fertilized. Drinking on the night of conception is not likely to harm the fetus and cause FAS, drinking in early pregnancy *is*. Once again, this isn’t an attack on sexual freedom, it’s biology. Alcohol passes through the placental barrier and goes right into the baby’s system. This is where the problem lies; especially since women are not aware the moment they conceive. I think the wording of the CDC could have been better, but just like a man eating junk food and drinking coke throughout the pregnancy isn’t going to harm the baby, neither is his drinking alcohol.

      • No, his drinking will not harm the baby, but he can prevent the child from being conceived in the first place. He can make responsible decisions as to when causes conception and who he does it with. Women need to be informed and responsible, but men need to be responsible also.

  6. Thank you for this post. I am so tired of the whiny, “not fair,” mentality. I am also raising a son on the fetal alcohol spectrum (and the autism spectrum and a few other things as well.) He tries harder than any person I have every met – but there are some things he just can’t overcome – things that are hard-wired in his biology because his birth mom used alcohol while pregnant. It breaks my heart. Please ladies, avoid alcohol if you are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or even might be pregnant. This is a short season in your life – not the totality of it.

  7. Well said, Renee. Stand firm, there are lots of us “with you”.

    I married into a family with MANY individuals showing varying degrees of FASD. We cared for my FASD-affected niece for a year because her FASD-affected mother couldn’t do it. I see one whole generation of siblings struggling with this – five out of five, 100%. Even the ones who are less affected struggle with executive functioning. (Article explaining that here – https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/aristotles-child/201107/executive-functioning-and-the-troubled-brain). They have trouble managing time (chronically late, over scheduled), space (lose things, clutter, hoarding), and money (where did it go?) They have trouble linking cause and effect (make the same mistake over and over again).

    And it was all preventable. Don’t drink!

  8. I didn’t like the report because it implied that ALL women should not drink alcohol period if they can still have kids. Even suggesting “unless on BC” is wrong because no BC is 100% effective. Here’s the thing. I rarely drink. I doubt one glass of wine that I happen to have will result in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Should women be aware? Sure. But saying that all women need to stop drinking all alcohol is outrageous and won’t do a darn thing. Letting pregnant women and those who are trying to conceive know the possible risks without giving a blanket statement.

  9. Back in 1994, one of my university professors was a woman of childbearing age whose work involved a lot of research on, and work with, people impacted by FASD (then called FAS/FAE). She matter-of-factly told our class that having seen the detriment of alcohol in pregnancy she had chosen not to drink at all – thus eliminating any possibility of harm to future children. It may sound extreme but for those who deal with the impact daily, it makes perfect sense.

    In my own work in the past with pregnant and parenting youth, I found that many of the girls who were drinking in their pregnancies were themselves affected by FASD and the cycle continued.

    I would not pretend to be an expert in this area, nor is my life directly impacted by this issue, but I do get a bit tired of the directed these conversations tend to go as a whole – this really is a simple matter of biology and not an attempt to control women’s freedoms.

  10. Renee, thank you for sharing. More stories from families like yours are needed. Families dealing with the end result of alcohol during pregnancy. I never drank while pregnant with my kids. I do remember friends who had the “occasional” drink and I just never understood. While I do drink alcohol I don’t find it’s a hardship if I need to not drink it for some reason (such as a pregnancy). The one thing I do think needs to change, the medical profession needs to be more direct with women about alcohol and pregnancy. I think many assume people know they shouldn’t smoke or drink but there are to many attitudes out there that a drink once in a while won’t hurt. If you watch what you are eating why wouldn’t you watch what you are drinking.

  11. I’m very glad that the CDC put out the info about the effects of alcohol on a fetus, because it fights the myth that “a little alcohol” is okay or even good for the baby and it highlights the very serious effects of alcohol in the first trimester. The more women know about pregnancy, the better off they and their potential children will be. The effects of a poor prenatal environment can affect a child for their entire life.

    I have some mixed feelings about the CDC’s advice that women either teetotal or use birth control if they’re at all sexually active with men. On one hand, if you’re regularly sexually active and don’t use any form of birth control, you’re pretty much guaranteed a pregnancy within a year unless you have fertility issues. If I were sexually active and not using birth control, I’d be avoiding alcohol, fish, prescription meds, and taking prenatal vitamins. (Of course, I grew up with parents who were very fertile: for them, not using birth control was nearly the same as actively trying to conceive.)

    Perhaps the CDC’s recommendation could have been worded a bit more carefully, but I’m not sure how I would have worded it. I can understand women being afraid of only being seen as a body that may become pregnant. There’s the fear that your body is no longer your own, that when you’re pregnant you become nothing more than an incubator. I’m very glad that the CDC is recommending that doctors talk to women about alcohol and pregnancy, but I don’t want to see women prosecuted for drinking or eating fish, etc, while pregnant. As long as it’s only advice and not a law, I’m very supportive of it.

  12. I am glad you share your family’s story get the subject of FASD out into the open.

    However my story brings a different perspective: when I found out I was pregnant with my first child, I was extremely worried as I had had a couple of glasses of wine the previous week (very unusual for me). I thought I had probably caused my child all kinds of damage. Until, that was, somebody pointed out to me that there is no exchange of blood between the mother and baby at that point. Usually the placenta only starts to work after you find out about the pregnancy (assuming, of course, you find out about it within 2-3 weeks of conceiving). This information lifted a huge burden off my chest, and I am putting it out there in case anyone else finds it helpful.

    Of course, I would not encourage reckless drinking while trying to conceive, but an oops can happen (especially when, like me, it usually takes you over a year to get pregnant).

    The potential problem with the CDC’s approach is that it could pile the guilt onto mothers who don’t deserve it, while not being effective in reaching the mothers who really do need to change their behavior. I really hope I am wrong about that.

    • bakersdozenandapolloxiv

      I have wondered about the timing myself…alcohol does cross the placental barrier and which is why it is so devastating and a baby can literally be born drunk…but on the night of conception? Or the next night? I mean, it usually takes a few days for the egg and sperm to meet and implantation to take place. I think the issue is drinking in the first weeks…or even months when many women do not realize they are pregnant. I am glad the CDC is taking a stronger stance, but believe it could have been worded better.

  13. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since it was released, and am really disappointed in the delivery. Disclaimer: I work in children’s mental health, disportionatly with those with FASD or FAE.

    Instead of coming out and saying ‘look at, this is what alcohol does during pregnancy. This is why. This is the effects. Why risk it?’, I feel it further shames women. It certainly doesn’t reduce the stigma surrounding Fetal Alcohol related disordered, and only by reducing the stigma can we begin early intervention with those already effected, and hopefully reach women and convince them that no, drinking alcohol is not the same as eating soft cheese during pregnancy. Unfortunately, that’s what this message was reduced to.

    It also left out the matter of choice. Fantastic, I can either be on BC or I can not drink. What if I am practicing abstinence? Or a lesbian? Do I need get a choice in what is right for me? I completely understand that the CDC was trying to take a hard line on this topic, but in my opinion they failed to reach most of their target audience.

    • bakersdozenandapolloxiv

      I agree. Instead of educating people it has spurred blog post after blog post about women’s rights, oppressions and “no one can tell me not to drink”. I have seen a handful of “I drank early in pregnancy and my baby is fine posts”. All in all, I think we may be worse off than we were before. But doctors *have* to start telling their patients no alcohol is safe during pregnancy and they *need* to be asking whether or not their patients are driven.g

  14. I realize I’m pretty late to the game on this one, but I was admittedly eager to see if you logged an opinion on this issue. I understand that you have a very personal and real understanding of fetal alcohol exposure, and how that informed this post. I also understand the opposing viewpoint that this IS about women’s rights. I really believe that the government saying women ought to be on birth control if they want to have a drink while they exist during childbearing years is badly stated at BEST. I believe the eye rolls and pushback about this are merited, just like I think an understanding of the effects of alcohol use during pregnancy is also very necessary.

    Tone is important. How you say what you mean is very, very important. I also think this may scare people who might otherwise be open to life into taking birth control they don’t want to take, instead of promoting a healthy, moderate lifestyle, and maybe even an understanding of your cycles the signals our own bodies send us. Nope, straight to BC. Because we can’t be trusted (but actually, because no one can make money off us that way).

    Anyway, I enjoyed hearing your opinion, as usual.

  15. As a mother raising a child with an #FASD, I appreciate your perspective. I err always on the side of the person least able to make the decision for themselves, and my responsibility to make the right decision for them. That means that my rights are trumped by an innocent child. I wish my child’s other mom would have had this knowledge and support to help her make the decisions she needed to keep my son from the lifelong challenges he faces. The language offered by the CDC may seem heavy handed, but shouldn’t detract from the seriousness of the message. IN fact, it should SUPPORT how serious they are taking prenatal exposure, finally. It’s been a long time coming to get the message right. Is it alot to recommend that a woman be on birth control? Yes. That is a woman’s choice. Does that “tone” allow for a woman to say “this choice matters a lot” if they’re deciding between having a drink or not. Yes. That is also a woman’s choice. But the second choice has long lasting effects on another person. I’m glad their are agencies (as much as I often loath govt intervention into our daily lives) that are finally taking 40 plus years of research and results seriously to take a stand on this issue and prevent future damage to our children.

Please share your thoughts!