What Effects Can Alcohol in Pregnancy Have on a Child in Later Life?


It has been reported in the news this week that a local authority has taken criminal legal action against a mother who drank heavily whilst she was pregnant. Throughout her pregnancy the mother was advised by her doctors that excessive drinking could affect her child.

Newborn baby

When the child was born she had Foetal Alcohol Syndrome.

The child in question was removed from her mother's care into local authority foster care and is now under the care of a local authority in the North West. The local authority is trying to secure compensation for the benefit of the child and have advanced the argument that drinking during pregnancy should become a criminal offence.

How Much Is Too Much?

In recent years, mixed messages have been sent through health authorities about the amount of alcohol a mother should consume whilst she is pregnant. The general view is that if you are trying to conceive or you are pregnant, you should avoid alcohol altogether. NICE released guidance on this issue repeating the same, but including what they believe is a safe amount of alcohol to consume if you are pregnant. They recommend that if you do drink it should be no more than 1-2 units of alcohol, once or twice a week. They also mention that you should not get drunk or binge drink, as this can increase the chances of your child being at risk.

A common disorder suffered by children who are exposed to alcohol in the womb is Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (FASD). It is a spectrum disorder that includes foetal alcohol syndrome.

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) – How Does it Happen?

The liver is the last thing to fully develop in a child in the womb. Typically, it does not mature until the last half of the pregnancy. When the mother drinks alcohol, the baby also "drinks" the alcohol. Due to the liver being undeveloped, the alcohol stays inside and affects the baby for a longer period of time than it does in the mother because the baby's liver cannot break it down.

Clare Linden, child care lawyer and Partner at Simpson Millar LLP observes:

"In recent years the true effects of alcohol use during pregnancy have started to become known. Foetal Alcohol Syndrome affects the way a baby's brain develops and how serious the condition is depends on how much alcohol a mother drank during pregnancy. Children with FAS have distinct facial abnormalities.

Children can also suffer from Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder as a consequence of alcohol use during pregnancy and this affects the way a baby develops physically and mentally. Children with FASD may not have facial abnormalities and therefore it may not be until they start going to school and interacting with others that their symptoms become noticeable. For example: learning difficulties, problems with language and a lack of appropriate social boundaries etc.

It can therefore be difficult for parents, family members, foster carers or adoptive parents caring for children with FASD to be aware of the true impact of the mother's alcohol use during pregnancy until the child is of school age."

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