Updated 10 September 2019

Is drinking small amounts of alcohol during pregnancy really safe?

It’s an inconvenient truth that South Africa has the highest rates of foetal alcohol syndrome in the world – and the condition continues to fly under the radar.

In South Africa the numbers are staggering: we have the highest number of babies in the world (111 per 1 000) born with foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), with the Western Cape at the front of the pack. To put it into perspective, the global average is only 7.7 per 1 000.

What is FAS?

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorders (FASD) is an umbrella term for a group of permanent, life-long and irreversible conditions caused by the effects of alcohol on a foetus, with foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) being the most extreme.

FAS is permanent brain damage caused by alcohol intake during pregnancy. Alcohol passes from the mother’s blood into the baby’s blood (via the placenta), and can damage a baby’s developing brain and body. It can result in serious physical and mental defects.

According to the KZN Department of Health, FAS is thought to be the third highest cause of congenital mental retardation – it is more common than spina bifida, autism and Down syndrome combined.

Symptoms include learning difficulties, hyperactivity, poor concentration, poor impulse control, and bad memory, among others. Unfortunately, the syndrome is permanent and irreversible, which means there is no cure or treatment. 

What about just a bit of alcohol?

Drinking any type of alcohol during pregnancy can cause irreversible brain damage in an unborn child. This is backed by scientific evidence, proving that these activities can have negative impacts on the health of the foetus.

While some studies suggest that a bit of alcohol during early pregnancy is safe, we don’t truly have the ability to accurately say what level of alcohol consumption is risk-free. So why take the risk? 

Kids with FAS really struggle

While activities like holding a pencil and drawing come easy to most kids, it can be a frustrating struggle for kids with FAS. This is because children with FAS experience delayed motor development and impaired fine motor skills. Apart from this, poor growth and seizures are also associated with the condition. 

Kids in the FAS spectrum can have intellectual disability, but can also have IQ’s above the normal range and be very smart. They might, however, at the same time be lacking in certain other areas such as abstract reasoning or the ability to control impulses. Basic learning can be a struggle, and they may need lifelong support because, cognitively, they’re unable to process things in a normal way.

Can fathers also be responsible for FAS?

Whether fathers' drinking habits can cause significant foetal abnormalities has for long been a topic of discussion, but there are some studies that indicate that dads may need to put down the bottle as well, as his diet and lifestyle may also lead to birth defects. However, it’s not yet clear how much alcohol can make a difference for men, and until that is known, doctors suggest it’s best for fathers-to-be to also minimise their alcohol intake.

The best analogy for the risk associated with alcohol consumption in pregnancy, as Jen Gunter wrote in the NY Times, is driving with your newborn unbuckled in the back seat: Perhaps you’ll meet with a car accident, perhaps you won’t. But if you do, it could be a minor collision, or it could be catastrophic.

*Each year on September 9th, World Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Day is observed in an effort to bring necessary awareness to the detrimental impact of the consumption of alcohol during pregnancy.

Image: iStock


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