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A message to young women with no plans on getting pregnant anytime soon

FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder) is something that I’d heard about before I began working with NOFASD, but I never thought it was my problem. If you’re a young woman with no children and no intention of getting pregnant anytime soon, you’re probably in the same boat as I was. This is how I realised that FASD is my problem too:

I began working with NOFASD in November 2019. I was so grateful for having the opportunity to work for a not-for-profit, but I did not expect the confronting and emotional journey that was to follow. In my first week I observed two training workshops facilitated by NOFASD and I remembered feeling completely shocked. I didn’t know that FASD is more common than autism, spina bifida, cerebal palsy, down syndrome and SIDS combined. And I didn’t know that FASD is a permanent brain injury and disability that never goes away. And this can happen from just a small amount of alcohol (no-one has found a ‘safe’ drinking level for a pregnancy).

But the thing that really got me was this – most women who have unplanned pregnancies don’t find out they’re pregnant for 4-6 weeks, but in this time frame the baby’s central nervous system, heart, arms, eyes, ears and legs have been rapidly developing. If alcohol is consumed in the first 6 weeks of pregnancy, these areas could very likely be impaired and your baby could develop FASD.

All of a sudden, FASD was my problem too. As a young woman with no partner, I hadn’t thought it was something that I needed to worry about. I knew I shouldn’t drink during pregnancy, but pregnancy was so far in the future that it was nothing for me to worry about. But the idea that I could have become pregnant in the past and could have placed my baby at risk of FASD before even knowing I was pregnant, was shocking. All I could think was – what if I hadn’t been informed about this now? What if I had gotten pregnant in the future without this information and not realised that I could be harming my unborn baby just by going along with my normal drinking routine? I could have set my child up for a lifelong impairment. I found this so shocking.

If you’re a young woman reading this, then I hope you find it shocking too. Not because I want to scare or overwhelm you, but because when you think about this information I have just shared, babies can be harmed so easily. FASD is not something that happens to babies of “other people”; it could very well happen to people like you and me. I’m so grateful that I’ve realised that FASD is my problem now; before any unplanned pregnancies and before I’ve started thinking about having children. Because now that I’m informed, I feel empowered to make the right choices and set appropriate standards so that I know that any future children I have will not be impacted by alcohol or develop FASD. The only way we can 100% protect against FASD is if no alcohol is consumed at all at any stage of the pregnancy. Easier said that done? Setting yourself some standards can help, so here are my standards to give you some food for thought.

My new standards

After everything I’ve learned about alcohol exposure during pregnancy and FASD, these are the standards that I’ve come up with for me:

  1. I will reduce alcohol consumption: I don’t drink a lot generally, and I will usually only have a few alcoholic drinks each month. I don’t binge drink often, maybe only once a year (binge drinking is classified at more than five standard drinks on one occasion). Now that I know that any amount of alcohol could harm my baby if I became pregnant, I am committed to cutting down on my drinking even more. The less alcohol we consume, the less we risk our babies developing FASD if we become pregnant unexpectedly.
  2. Unprotected sex and alcohol will never mix: I don’t want to go into too much detail in this blog, but research has shown that if Mum or Dad are under the influence of alcohol at the time of conception, then the developing baby could be negatively impacted. It’s not well understood yet, but for me, I am committing to ensure that alcohol and unprotected sex never mix so that this isn’t a risk for me or my future baby. If you’re not in a relationship but are having sex, make sure you use contraception every time, especially if you’re regularly consuming alcohol. Doing this will reduce the chance of unplanned pregnancy.
  3. When engaging in family planning discussions with a future partner, we will both commit to an alcohol-free period of at least 6 months prior to trying for children. Recent research has found that both mum and dad should give up alcohol for at least six months before conception to prevent congenital heart defects, the chance of miscarriage, preterm delivery and FASD. Whatever you put into your body in the six months prior to conception may impact your baby once you become pregnant. Alcohol also impacts fertility, which may be worth considering for you and your partner.
  4. Once I start trying for children, I will assume that I could be pregnant until proven that I am not. So, because of that, I will abstain from alcohol throughout this entire period and I will expect my future partner to support me by doing the same.
  5. And of course, I will abstain from alcohol use for the duration of pregnancy.

I know these standards might not suit you; you might be thinking that they are not realistic or that they may be extreme. But I don’t want to risk my child being born with a brain injury. And because of that, all of these standards are worth it. Going without alcohol for what could possibly be a few years is worth it to me; because I’d rather a few years of no alcohol than a child with impairment for their whole life. Reading this mother’s blogs about raising her son with FASD gave me insight into the reality that families face every day. Whatever stage of life you’re at, think about how you can protect your future baby – because FASD is your problem too.

Preventing FASD is not only a woman’s responsibility – it is the responsibility of the whole community. Partners play a key role in supporting (or not supporting) alcohol-free pregnancies. CanFASD describe what men can do to support healthy pregnancies. Friends and family can play a huge role in preventing FASD – by ensuring you always provide an attractive alcohol-free alternative, never peer pressuring someone to drink, and perhaps even abstaining yourself to support a friend who is pregnant or trying to get pregnant.

September 9th is FASD Awareness Day, an opportunity to start conversations and raise awareness about this important topic. NOFASD is acknowledging #FASDawareness through the Red Shoes Rock campaign, an opportunity to be creative and have fun starting conversations.

Please join us this International FASD Awareness Day!

You may wish to host an event (please contact us to request your free FASD Awareness Month resources), share a message online (such as this Red Shoes Rock video or a photo of yourself in red shoes), or send electronic resources to your friends and colleagues. If we all support healthy pregnancies we reduce the risk of babies being impacted by Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

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