September is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Awareness Month

The below is written by NPWH Director of Publications, Beth Kelsey, EdD, APRN, WHNP-BC, FAANP

As nurse practitioners providing healthcare for women, we have the opportunity to be leaders and champions in a campaign to prevent alcohol use during pregnancy and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). Our patients trust us to provide client-centered care that includes providing facts, being respectful of their individual needs and concerns, and supporting them in making informed decisions that will promote healthy pregnancy outcomes. Sometimes the conversations we have with patients about alcohol use during pregnancy are easy, sometimes they are difficult. As nurse practitioners we are equipped to have the conversation whether easy or difficult.

Call to Action

According to CDC data, only 17 percent of pregnant women reported that their healthcare provider talked with them about alcohol use. We have to do better. Our role must go beyond individual patient care. Educate colleagues, offer to speak at community events on the topic of preventing alcohol use during pregnancy, and, if you teach NP students be sure they have the knowledge and skills to also be leaders and champions.

Let’s start by agreeing to set the record straight regarding the mixed messages women may receive from family, friends, and even other healthcare providers about whether it is safe to drink alcohol during pregnancy. There is no safe time, no safe amount, and no safe type of alcohol to drink during pregnancy.

Alcohol is a known teratogen that readily crosses the placenta. When a developing baby is exposed to alcohol it can lead to permanent conditions known as FASDs. A range of developmental, cognitive, and behavioral problems can occur, appear at any time during childhood, and last a lifetime. We don’t have a crystal ball to know who might be affected and how seriously. Genetics, environment, and other exposures may all contribute to outcomes. Every pregnancy is different so alcohol exposure can affect each developing baby differently even in the same woman.

The Facts

  • About 1 in 9 pregnant women reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days and one third of pregnant women who reported consuming alcohol engaged in binge drinking.1
  • Drinking alcohol while pregnant can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, and FASDs.
  • Alcohol-exposed pregnancies are a leading cause of preventable birth defects and neurodevelopmental abnormalities in the United States.
  • Based on National Institutes of Health-funded community studies, experts estimate that the full range of FASDs in the United States might number as high as 1 to 5 per 100 school children.2

There is no safe time to drink during pregnancy — Prenatal alcohol exposure at any time during pregnancy can cause developmental problems. Brain development occurs throughout gestation. Because alcohol exposure affects the developing baby through a variety of mechanisms and impacts different body systems, timing of the exposure can influence some of the potential effects. You can use a fetal development chart to facilitate discussion with your patients about developmental timing. The chart can help you to make the point that while it is best to stop drinking prior to becoming pregnant, it is never too late in pregnancy to stop drinking and lessen potential effects. The fetal development chart can also be used when you provide preconception counseling. Approximately half of pregnancies are unplanned, so women could potentially be drinking alcohol before they realize they are pregnant.

There is no safe amount of alcohol to drink during pregnancy – No amount of alcohol is currently deemed safe during pregnancy. This is true for most known teratogens. We don’t know a dose threshold for teratogenic effects. We do know that because alcohol readily crosses the placenta, a developing baby can be exposed to the same level of alcohol as the mother.

There is no safe type of alcohol to drink during pregnancy – all types of alcohol can be equally harmful to the developing fetus, including all wines and beer.

Are you ready to answer the call to action? Here are some useful resources.

The CDC and Collaborative for Alcohol-Free Pregnancy
Mother’s Womb: Baby’s First Environment Graphic

Fetal Development Chart 

Free online continuing education courses for healthcare providers on the prevention, identification, and management of FASDs

University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Toolkit for Nurse Champions

NPWH
Optimizing Preconception Health: Preventing Unexpected Teratogen Exposure in Reproductive Age Women is a series of seven taped webinars on different aspects of this topic.

The National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS) provides fact sheets, videos, and other resources for professionals and individuals impacted by FASDs.

References:

  1. Denny CH, Acero CS, Naimi Ts, Kim SY. Consumption of alcohol beverages and binge drinking among pregnant women aged 18-44 years – United States, 2015-2017. MMWR. 2019; 68:365-368.
  2. May PA, Chambers CD, Kalberg WO, et al. Prevalence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders in 4 US communities. Journal of American Medical Association. 2018;319(5):474–482.

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