Alcoholism during pregnancy is undoubtedly one of the most controversial topics in the modern day world. It has even become more controversial in the recent times with gender equality and female liberation at its peak. Gone are the days when a woman’s job was to stay at home, take care of the housework and bear children. The modern day woman is a career woman. She is not tied down to staying at home and can always enjoy herself with a drink or two after work. This is as opposed to those times when it almost seemed like a taboo for women to drink. Naturally, the rate of drinking among women has increased with liberation and so has the rate of alcoholism during pregnancy.
Alcohol circulates in the mother’s blood and passes to the fetal circulation system through the placenta. Since the fetus is intolerant to alcohol, chances of their development being affected are high. Children born of mothers who took alcohol during pregnancy have what is commonly known as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). These can be either physical, behavioral, mental or learning disorders. The FASB are incurable and cause serious physical, mental and learning behaviors in the children during growth. There are unusual behaviors that are noticed in children born of alcoholic mothers especially during pregnancy. This is an issue of concern and the necessary measures should be taken to mitigate this in pregnant women.
The issue of alcoholism during pregnancy as stated above is a very controversial topic. There are those who believe that moderate or controlled drinking during pregnancy poses no danger to the unborn child. There are others who believe that taking alcohol during pregnancy is highly risky to the unborn child. The truth is that for whatever reason that we try to justify alcoholism during pregnancy, it is highly risky for the fetus and alcohol during pregnancy should be avoided at all costs. Its effects are permanent and they cause pain and suffering that lasts a lifetime. They are not in the very least worth missing a few drinks during the nine months. Abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy would save the world from a lot of childhood malformations and the expenses that come with trying to revert or comfortably live with them. It is no doubt one of the steps towards making the world a better place and giving innocent children the fullness of life that they deserve.
It is worth noting that of all the drugs that one can abuse, alcohol is the most dangerous neural teratogen to a growing fetus. Its effects are also felt and observed in virtually all parts of the body of the unborn child. Alcohol is that it is able to circulate from the mother’s system, break the placental barrier and get into the fetus’ circulation. This means that every time the mother drinks, the unborn baby also drinks (Buddy, 2009). The unborn baby however unlike the mother has very little tolerance for alcohol. Its blood alcohol level can rise to or even surpass that of the mother. This level stays high for a longer period of time because the unborn baby’s system is not as well developed to break down alcohol as that of its mother. Some reports even suggest that women who are planning on getting pregnant should refrain from alcohol before they conceive.
Alcohol consumption during pregnancy results in a range of disorders called Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). Individuals who are said to have this condition show some but not all the disorders that arise from alcohol consumption in prenatal period. These can be either physical, behavioral, mental or learning disorders. They include, alcohol related birth defects alcohol related neurodevelopmental disorders and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). The most serious of these disorders is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. This is a disorder that comes from women drinking too much alcohol when they are pregnant and children having this condition may show all the above mentioned symptoms. The issue of concern however is the fact that nobody seems to have defined the limit of drinking during pregnancy. It is thus advisable to avoid drinking altogether at this crucial time (fasdcenter.samhsa.gov, 2007).
Fetal alcohol syndrome is an incurable and permanent condition that manifests itself as a series of physical and mental disorders. These disorders bring about serious handicap which include growth deficiencies, abnormal facial structures and central nervous system disorders. Sufferers of this condition are also prone to secondary conditions that result from this syndrome. The secondary conditions include mental health problems, inappropriate sexual behavior, drugs and alcohol problems, and general problems in the day to day life. People with this condition also have problems with memory, attention, vision, hearing, communication and integration of all these factors leading to disruption of their education. The victims of this handicap may thus require a lifetime of special care.
When alcohol gets in to the circulation of the fetus, it triggers a number of destructive processes at different sites. It is known to cause cell death in the fetus. This results in abnormal development in the areas where death of cells has occurred.
Alcohol also interrupts the development of nerve cells and the way they travel to form different parts of the brain. This means that their function is impaired. The brain is one of the earliest organs to develop in a fetus and it controls the development of the rest of the organs by way of impulses transmitted by nerve cells. Impairment of nerve cell function is thus very fatal to the fetus because it results in abnormal growth and malformation in most of the body’s organ systems. It also results in a faulty arrangement of brain cells and connective tissue. The toxic by products of alcohol sometimes get concentrated in the brain of the fetus. These lead to development of one or several of the fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
The brain of the fetus keeps developing throughout the pregnancy. Alcohol abuse during pregnancy can hence lead to permanent brain damage in the fetus. Brain damage depends on the intensity and time of exposure to alcohol (NHS choices, 2008). Early exposure especially in the first trimester is more fatal as it results in structural deformities. Exposure in the last trimester results in functional impairments. Studies have shown that fetuses that are exposed to alcohol in the first trimester of pregnancy have smaller brains a condition called microcephaly. Some parts of the brains are even reported to be missing in some cases for example the cerebellum, basal ganglia, corps callosum and others. These lead to the impairment of functions conducted by the brain in general and the missing parts. Consequential impairments are for example problems with impulse control, social skills, language and memory, attention deficits and hyperactivity (fasdcenter.samhsa.gov, 2007).
Generally, brain damage occurs at three levels, the structural, neurological and functional levels. The structural impairment in most cases results in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Neurological impairments are those that occur to either the central, peripheral or autonomous nervous system. They are also evident in FAS and are diagnosed as disorders such as epilepsy or seizures. Neurological impairments can also be seen in signs such as impairment of motor skills, clumsiness and neurosensory hearing loss. Functional impairments allow for detection of alcohol related disorders when neurological and structural impairments are not visible. They are expressed in deficits, abnormalities and delays due to prenatal alcohol exposure.
Another major effect of alcohol intake during pregnancy is constriction of the blood vessels. This impairs blood circulation in the fetus. The fetus is thus not able to get enough oxygen and nutrient. The body organs need the nutrients and oxygen to develop. Lack or inadequacy leads to malformations and abnormal growth.
Alcohol related disorders maybe detectable at birth or not detectable. Detectable features at birth occur in severe cases. They include odd facial features which occur mostly in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The baby in this case is born with a small head, flat face and narrow eye slits. The eyelids are drooping and the child suffers from near sightedness. Eyes can fail to move in the same direction. The nose is short and upturned and the nasal bridge sunken. The ears are poorly formed and low set. The groove between the nose and the upper lip maybe flat or absent and the upper lip thin. Small jaw and an opening in the mouth roof all may occur as a result of alcoholism during pregnancy. Generally, the child has an unattractive facial appearance which becomes more apparent at the age of two to three years (Golonka, 2009).
Other detectable features include growth problems. Children who are exposed to alcohol in the prenatal stage show slower growth than other children of their age. They are usually smaller than the children in their age group and show behavioral and learning problems. Birth defects are apparent. In severe cases where the mother has been consuming alcohol heavily, the fetus may suffer a miscarriage, a stillbirth or premature birth.
In the case of heavy alcohol consumption during pregnancy, the organ systems have some deformities and the skeletal system is not left out. The body has a small size due to the slow growth. The ribs and the sternum show some deformities. The spine may be curved and the hips dislocated. The joints also have limited movement. The digits of the hands and the feet may fail to separate fully or separate with deformities. This leads to bent webbed or fused fingers or toes with missing digits. The infant or child also suffers from poor hand, finger and body coordination.
Other organ systems that have deformities include the cardiovascular system and the genital urinary system. The blood vessels constrict as mentioned before. The heart also develops with defects. Heart murmurs is a condition that has been observed in fetuses and infants exposed to alcohol in the prenatal period. Other heart defects observed include atrial septal defects and ventricular septal defects. The genitals are sometimes malformed. The kidney suffers malformations like abnormal shapes and development for example horse shoe shape dysplastic, apoplastic or hypo plastic kidneys. The urinary system at large is also greatly affected (Buddy, 2009).
Undetectable features at birth occur in less severe cases and are in most cases not apparent at birth. These features start appearing when the child attains school going age. These are the learning disorders, attention deficits and behavior disorders. These disorders can trouble the child even into the adolescence stage. The child is more prone to developing wayward behaviors such drug and alcohol abuse and addiction and criminal tendencies. Aggressive and delinquent behaviors are also very likely to develop in these children. Emotional problems are also common in children of four to eight years whose mothers abused alcohol during the pregnancy (March of Dimes, 2008).
Perhaps one of the most worrying tendencies is the fact that fetal alcohol exposure is one of the leading causes of mental retardation in the developed world. In a world were civilization rules the streets, about 30% of the pregnant women are reported to use alcohol at some point in their lives. About 0.2 to 2.0 cases of mental retardation due to fetal alcohol exposure cases are reported in about 1000 live births.
Alcoholism during pregnancy also has major indirect effects. One of them is the pressure exerted on the immediate families of babies born with alcohol related disorders and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Caring of a mentally retarded child is challenging more so when the defects are extreme. This also exerts pressure on the economy of a nation to the funds spent on caring for these children. It is estimated that it takes about eight hundred thousand to meet the medical costs of a child that is born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. This is exclusive of the money spent in treating and caring for children born with other alcohol related symptoms and disorders. The mental retardation also locks away potential when children who could have been normal are born with severe disorders and have to rely on other people in their day to day life. This reduces the able working population while increasing the dependants.
It is no doubt that alcohol consumption during pregnancy is a very risky affair. Its negative effects are endless and the expectant mothers who indulge in this activity deny their children chance to live a better life. As liberated as the thought of women taking alcohol may sound, it is no doubt one of the most dangerous actions of a mother who expects to conceive. Responsible drinking or total abstinence would go a long way in ensuring that more healthier