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04th Apr 2015

Foetal Alcohol Sydrome: A mother’s perspective

"I am living with my guilt every day. That’s a real life sentence."

Sophie White

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can result in Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) a serious condition that for children affected can result in restricted growth, facial abnormalities and learning and behavioural disorders.

In recent months there has been increasing controversy around this subject. In England, a council caring for a seven-year-old child with FAS sought compensation under the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme. The case was contentious as the outcome could lead to other behaviour deemed harmful to unborn babies such as eating soft boiled eggs or unpasteurised cheese potentially being criminalised.

According to a report published by the Health Research Board, 60 per cent of expectant Irish mothers drink during pregnancy.

The subject is a tricky one. While I was pregnant declining a drink was viewed by some as the height of eccentricity. So much so that I’d often accept the proffered wine and hold it like a prop to just avoid the conversation, unwittingly inviting an even more controversial debate about what I was doing drinking while pregnant.

Guidelines are misleading. Information on the NHS website appears to recommend total abstinence but also states that:

“If you do opt to have a drink, it recommends that you stick to one or two units of alcohol (equivalent to one small glass of wine) once or twice a week to minimise the risk to your baby.”

While new recommendations published by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists concluded that low to moderate drinking after the first trimester (between two and four units a week) showed no adverse effects on a baby’s development.

Today’s Guardian offers a perspective on Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) that we rarely hear; that of a mother who drank during her pregnancies and caused her two children to develop the syndrome.

Though it is 20 years since Laura’s pregnancies, the medical guidance is still ambiguous and the mother of two says that she speaks out on this subject in order to prevent others from suffering like her sons have:

“I need to make sure this doesn’t happen to other people,” Laura says. “Women shouldn’t be prosecuted – they should be given alcohol-rehabilitation services. No woman I have ever met ever wants to harm her baby. This is an illness, not a choice. But people need to be told if they do drink, what will happen. There aren’t enough clear guidelines. I think midwives are scared sometimes to confront women.”

She tells the paper of her struggle to come to terms with her own guilt, but she is committed to affecting positive change. Speaking about her actions that resulted in major difficulties for her two sons must be harrowing but she feels it is essential to show people the lasting effects of drinking during pregnancy. She volunteers for the European Birth Mother Network to help other mothers and children through similar experiences and is a staunch advocate for education and support rather than criminalisation.

“There is sometimes a witch-hunt to go after the mothers, but I am living with my guilt every day. That’s a real life sentence.”

Laura drank throughout both her pregnancies. Her life at that time was quite chaotic; she was dealing with an abusive partner and a huge lack of stability.

“I was a social drinker, but increasingly I was using alcohol to cope. I went to all my appointments, they were aware that I drank – I was drinking beer, mainly, Holsten Pils. The midwife knew I was a four-times-a-week drinker.”

At first neither son showed any physical signs of the disorder but their behaviour was challenging and Laura began to investigate their issues. Eventually both children were formally diagnosed and Laura was devastated.

With the evidence regarding ‘safe’ levels of alcohol consumption during pregnancy still contradictory, is it worth the risk?