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What I Wish I Knew about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)

Parenting, in general, is hard work. It is challenging but also rewarding, especially as a biological mother to a teenage son with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

It’s been almost 18 months since my son was formally diagnosed with FASD, a journey that was years in the making.

FASD is the leading non-genetic developmental disorder in Australia caused by drinking alcohol while pregnant. People with FASD experience lifelong physical, behavioural and cognitive challenges.

More than one in four women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy are unaware drinking even low levels of alcohol during pregnancy can cause FASD.

Until a few years ago, I was one of these women.

Every Moment Matters: What I Wish I Knew

I was in my early 30s when I fell pregnant with my son. I’d been married for four years to a medical professional and had started to prepare by changing what I ate and drank.

My pregnancy was confirmed at six weeks. We were surprised and delighted. But the excitement was followed by trepidation. I had drunk alcohol the night of conception while entertaining with friends and had a few glasses of wine with friends on two further occasions before finding out I was pregnant.

As soon as I realised I was pregnant, I stopped drinking socially and reduced my weekly consumption to half a glass.

Although we were planning a pregnancy, we didn’t expect to fall pregnant so quickly. Almost one in two Australian women are not aware that alcohol could cause harm even in the early stages of pregnancy.

Every parent wants to do the right thing for their growing baby to give them the best start in life. I would drink one weak coffee per day, wash my salad, and avoid soft cheese for fear of causing harm to my developing baby.

However, I still remember standing in my kitchen for my “Friday night treat” measuring one standard glass of wine. The amount was considered safe at the time. The guidelines are now very clear and if you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, you should not drink alcohol

There is a lot of misinformation about alcohol and pregnancy, making it hard for people to find the latest accurate information. This is why Every Moment Matters, the first instalment of the National Awareness Campaign for Pregnancy and Breastfeeding Women, is so important.

This campaign has been developed by the Foundation of Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) and endorsed and funded by the Australian Government Department of Health.

Alcohol consumed at any stage of pregnancy passes directly to the baby and can damage their developing brain and organs.

“Physically perfect in every way”

My son was born at full-term, a beautiful bouncing 9lb baby, physically perfect in every way. He was a ‘fussy’ baby. He cried a lot, didn’t sleep much, and had several ear infections and an incredible pain threshold.

International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day

From family daycare at ten months through to Year 5 at school, my son met all of his developmental milestones… always slightly late but not enough to be a concern.

I knew, as his mum, something wasn’t quite right. I just didn’t know what it was. The responses we generally received were “He’s a late developer … he’ll grow out of it.”

My life’s work had been working with young people in at-risk environments. I had seen firsthand the impact of FASD on individuals and families.

The more I read about the physical and neurodevelopment challenges of babies and children with FASD, the more I identified similarities with my son. There were so many parallels, and I could not overlook my alcohol intake before my pregnancy confirmation as a potential causal factor for his challenges.

A long road

Our experience to get an FASD diagnosis was a long one. I was regularly told it was doubtful there would have been harm due to the low level of consumption. I knew from my research that this was untrue statistically.

Once we realised it could be FASD, it took us 18 months to get a diagnosis, but we wasted years trying to identify why our son had challenges.

My son is a relatively happy and healthy young man. We do everything we can to support our son in our environment. We’re lucky to have provided him with strong boundaries, consistency, routine, good nutrition, and a life without trauma. He attends school almost every day, but he also struggles every day.

I didn’t know I was pregnant in the early weeks. If I had known of the potential risks then, I would have stopped drinking as soon as we started trying.

I want everyone to know that the guidelines are very clear (now). When you start trying for a baby, you need to stop drinking alcohol or seek help to stop drinking as alcohol can affect the developing baby at any time during pregnancy.

Where to learn more

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Written by Sophie, Biological mum to a teenage son with FASD

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