Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)

Key points about fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)

  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) refers to a range of preventable birth defects and disorders caused when a developing baby is exposed to alcohol before they are born.
  • There's no safe time to drink alcohol in pregnancy.
  • There's no safe amount to drink in pregnancy.
  • Drinking alcohol when pregnant can change a baby's physical appearance and damage their brain.
  • Incorrect information, fear of causing stress and social pressure to drink may be barriers to women being able to make well-informed choices around alcohol use during pregnancy.
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Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) refers to a range of preventable birth defects and disorders caused when a developing baby is exposed to alcohol before they are born.

Don't drink while pregnant

There is no safe time to drink alcohol in pregnancy. There is no safe amount to drink in pregnancy.

Drinking can damage your baby

Drinking alcohol when pregnant can change a baby's physical appearance and damage their brain. There can also be brain damage without any obvious physical changes. This brain damage shows up as learning and/or behaviour problems that can cause lifelong difficulties. FASD is a lifelong disability.

Based on overseas studies and our drinking patterns, New Zealand can expect up to 3,000 babies a year to be born with FASD.

Making informed choices

Incorrect information, fear of causing stress and social pressure to drink may be barriers to women being able to make well-informed choices around alcohol use during pregnancy.

What to do if you're worried about a child

If you're worried about the behaviour and learning of a child who was exposed to alcohol during pregnancy, ask your family doctor for a referral to your nearest Child Health Service.

If you are pregnant or planning to be pregnant and having trouble stopping drinking, seek the help of your local health professional or lead maternity carer, or call the Alcohol Drug Helpline 0800 787 797.

The Fetal Alcohol Network New Zealand (FANNZ)(external link) has further information and contact details should you wish to talk to someone about any concerns.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Care Action Network(external link) provides support and education for whānau, individuals and communities across Aotearoa.

FASD prevalence

There has never been a prevalence study for FASD in New Zealand so estimates are used. The Fetal Alcohol Network NZ has estimated the prevalence of FASD as more than 1 in 1001 (an estimated 1800–3,000 births annually)6. This would make FASD the most common “birth defect” in New Zealand. However, as the rates of FASD are only an estimate and considering the diagnosis is difficult to make, it may be more accurate to say that it is one of the most common causes of long-term disability.

International prevalence studies suggest FASD is conservatively estimated to occur in at least 1 out of every 100 live births and may be much higher in communities where binge and hazardous use of alcohol are prevalent. No research has confirmed the prevalence in New Zealand but it is thought the numbers could be substantially higher due to hazardous drinking patterns.1

  • A systematic review published in 2016 reported that the worldwide rate of FASD was 113 per 1000, FAS 55 per 1000 and the neurodevelopmental delay was 20 per 1000.2
  • A Taranaki study reported a rate of 28% drinking during pregnancy with 10% of these women drinking more than 2 units a day for 7 days per week.3
  • Studies in Canada and US report an incidence of between 5 in 1000 to 15 per 1000 in aboriginal populations for the prevalence of FASD. This study reported that the rate of FASD is about 5 times that of FAS which is not entirely consistent with the systematic review but may be more appropriate to NZ. This is with a background of 10%–15% drinking alcohol in pregnancy.4 

References

  1. Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder(external link) Foetal Alcohol Network, NZ
  2. Roozen, S., Peters, G..-J.Y., Kok, G., Townend, D., Nijhuis, J., Curfs, L. Worldwide Prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders: A Systematic Literature Review Including Meta-Analysis (2016)(external link) Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 40 (1), pp. 18-32.
  3. Ho R, Jacquemard R. Maternal alcohol use before and during pregnancy among women in Taranaki, New Zealand(external link) New Zealand Medical Journal, 2009;122(1306):20-32.
  4. Popova S, Lange S, Probst C, Parunashvil, N, Rehm J. Prevalence of alcohol consumption during pregnancy and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders among the general and Aboriginal populations in Canada and the United States(external link) Eur J of Med Genet. 2017;60(1):32-48
  5. Taking Action on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder: 2016-2019 - An action plan (external link) is New Zealand's national policy document. For more information and to download or order the action plan
  6. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder(external link) Health New Zealand | Te Whatu Ora

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Credits: Content shared between HealthInfo Canterbury, KidsHealth and Healthify He Puna Waiora as part of a National Health Content Hub Collaborative.

Reviewed by: Content shared between HealthInfo Canterbury, KidsHealth and Healthify NZ as part of a National Health Content Hub Collaborative.

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