18 Feb 2013

Doctors call for alcohol tests during pregnancy

As doctors call for pregnant women to be tested for alcohol intake, Channel 4 News speaks to youngsters left permanently brain damaged by their mothers’ drinking.

Eighteen year old Eddie and his 21-year old brother, Andy, have permanent brain damage. Their learning disabilities were entirely avoidable, but the impact is for life.

The damage was caused by their birth mother drinking heavily while she was pregnant. They were born with a condition called Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD).

Stanley is just eight, and is paying a heavy price for his mother’s drinking. Even at his young age, he’s aware enough to know how FASD affects him: “I don’t grow very much, I’m not very strong, I can’t control what I say,” he says. He was expelled from his infant school after just two weeks and now attends a specialist one.

These youngsters and their parents agreed to share their painful stories with us ahead of Tuesday’s publication of a report into FASD. It is an insight into living with a condition that is often misdiagnosed, and is probably much more widespread than we realise.

Pregnant and concerned?
Speak in the first instance to your midwife/GP, or contact the FASD Trust for information and support.

Where do you go if you think your child is affected by FASD?
You need to contact your GP first, and discuss with them about an onward referral, probably to community paediatrics. They can then follow the referral pathway and diagnostic guidance laid out in the report.

What happens if I have already explored and accessed my local services?
If your child is six years of age and over and, crucially, if you have completed genetic testing, then you can request your GP refers you to the National FASD Clinic at Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. More guidance and information can be found here.

My child has FASD – where can I get further support?
The FASD Trust runs and organises support groups, on-line forums, parenting workshops and other events. For more information contact the FASD Trust.

Information provided by the FASD Trust.

Tomorrow nearly 70 medical professionals and the FASD Trust will publish the first clear guidance into FASD.

They want all mums to be warned that drinking in pregnancy has the potential to cause permanent brain damage and other birth defects. They want earlier diagnosis of children exposed to alcohol in the womb so they can get the support they need.

Children in care

The problem of diagnosis is more acute in the care system. Anecdotally, 60-70 per cent of babies are taken into care because their parents are drug addicts or alcoholics. But, if they have FASD, it often won’t manifest itself until they start school.

Without details of the birth mother’s drinking, it is impossible to get a diagnosis. Yet by then, their mothers could well have disappeared – or might refuse to give the information.

The experts behind the report are demanding a birth mother’s alcohol intake during pregnancy is recorded on her pre-natal notes and also, crucially, passed on to the newborn’s records too. Only that way will a diagnosis later in life be possible.

Some of those we interviewed showed immense bravery agreeing to talk to us. Stanley’s mother, Samantha, was the only birth mother of a child with FASD we could find who would speak to us about it. She was an alcoholic during her pregnancy though she has since given up drink.

“I feel guilty, and I’ve been very down on myself. But it’s about accepting I’ve got an illness. We’ve got to make the best of what we’ve got,” she says.

It’s a poignant reminder that a mother’s drinking in pregnancy can blight her child’s life forever.