The news media is paying attention to a soon-to-be released book, “Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong—and What You Really Need to Know,” by Emily Oster, an associate professor of economics at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. As the leading organization supporting people with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), The Arc is pushing back on the claims put forward in this book that could lead women to believe that light drinking during pregnancy is statistically safe. Oster is not a medical professional, and the medical community has a clear position on this issue – there is no safe amount of alcohol that can be consumed while pregnant.
“Why risk it? That’s the question we should be encouraging women to ask themselves when they consider drinking alcohol while pregnant. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, the nation’s top doctor, there is no absolute safe amount of alcohol that a woman can drink during pregnancy without risk of harming her unborn baby. FASD is 100% preventable, yet books like this one give the irresponsible impression that the odds of a drink here or there affecting your child aren’t high enough for women to choose to abstain from drinking alcohol while pregnant,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.
What is FASD?
FASD is an umbrella term describing the range of effects that can occur in an individual whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. These effects can include physical, behavioral, mental and/or learning disabilities with possible lifelong implications. It is identified by abnormal facial features, central nervous system problems and slowness of growth, and occurs when pregnant women drink alcohol and pass the alcohol along to their unborn babies through the blood stream. FASD can cause physical and mental disabilities of varying levels of severity, including intellectual disability. It is often a “hidden disability” that is not easily recognizable, making it difficult to provide affected individuals and their families the supports they desperately need.
What are other disorders linked to drinking while pregnant?
FASD covers other terms such as: FAS (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome), ARND (Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder), ARBD (Alcohol-Related Birth Defects) and FAE (Fetal Alcohol Effects). FAS is the most identifiable and serious disability under the FASD umbrella, although it only accounts for approximately 25% of all alcohol-related effects. FAE is a term often used to describe someone whose condition does not meet the full criteria for an FAS diagnosis.
The data affirms the national recommendation to not drink while pregnant
The CDC doesn’t know exactly how many people are affected, however their studies have shown that between 0.2 to 2.0 cases of FAS occur for every 1,000 live births in the U.S. (this statistic focuses on FAS only, not FASD).
When the number of people with FASD are included in that data, the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome states that approximately one in 100 children are affected by FAS or FASD. This is based on a study from the University of Washington that refer to this as a conservative rate, affirming the belief of many health professionals that fetal alcohol exposure is a serious problem in the United States.
According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, for one individual with FAS, the most severe form of FASD, the lifetime cost of care is estimated at $2 million. For our nation as a whole, the cost may be as high as $6 billion each year.
While there is no safe time period in a pregnancy to drink, recent research shows that between weeks six and twelve of a pregnancy, a baby is particularly susceptible to harm from drinking alcohol, showing an increase in certain facial features of FAS, in addition to lower birth weight and length.
“What you don’t know can, in fact, hurt you and your baby – for a lifetime. There is no safe amount you can drink and still protect your child’s health, and dissecting data to prove otherwise will only increase the number of kids affected. This is a societal problem that is within our power to tackle, as long as we carefully listen to all the facts,” said Berns.