Up to 5 Percent of Children Affected by Mothers’ Drinking, Study Finds

Nearly 5 percent of children in the U.S. may be affected by fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), a new study finds, a figure much higher than previously thought.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders refer to a range of physical and cognitive conditions that affect children whose mothers drank alcohol during pregnancy. People affected by these disorders are likely to have a mix of various problems rather than a single one.

Physical conditions seen with FASD can range from abnormal facial features to stunted growth, while cognitive problems can include learning disabilities, hearing problems and vision problems. Other effects from exposure to alcohol in utero include small head size, low IQ, hyperactivity and attention problems, speech delays, infant sleep problems, memory deficits and even heart, kidney or bone problems.

A new study from Sanford Research reveals that these disorders may be much more common than previously thought in the United States. The study of 6- and 7 year-olds in the Midwest estimates that 5 percent of U.S. children are affected by fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

Maternal Drinking

The team from Sanford research gathered data from two groups of children in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The first group of children were selected from those in the 25th percentile or less when it came to head circumference, height and weight. The second group was randomly selected from the entire population of first-graders in Sioux Falls.

The researchers gathered information from children in both groups concerning cognitive ability, behavior, physical deformities or abnormalities and overall physical growth. In addition, the mothers of the children in both groups were questioned in order to determine behaviors that could indicate a greater risk of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

They discovered that 2.4 percent to 4.8 percent of the children in the study were affected by a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, based on physical attributes and cognitive characteristics. These children were more likely to have mothers who drank heavily or binge drank on weekends before discovering they were pregnant. The mothers of affected children were also more likely to have sought prenatal care relatively late and more likely to have spouses or partners who drank heavily.

New Estimate More Than Doubles Number of Affected Children

Even the lower estimate found in this study is more than twice the accepted rate of occurrence of FASD. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders have been thought to occur in only 1 percent of children in the United States, but this new study suggests that FASD affects far more children nationwide than previously believed.

Sioux Falls is a predominately middle class community, which the Sanford researchers selected as a representative Midwestern U.S. city. The demographics of Sioux Falls suggest a community that should not be at exceptional risk for FASD compared with the country as a whole.

Unplanned Pregnancies

In this country, more than half of all pregnancies are unplanned. As a result, many women are not aware of their condition until four to six weeks into their pregnancy. Unfortunately, consuming alcohol during these early stages of pregnancy can put children at risk for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. In the cases of accidental pregnancy, many women unknowingly end up exposing their child to alcohol and to the various problems that may result.

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