The number of children in care affected by their mothers drinking alcohol while pregnant is “snowballing”, a doctor has warned.
Between 50 and 60 percent of children in the care of Gateshead Council are estimated to have some form of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), Dr Helen Palmer told the authority’s parenting scrutiny committee at a meeting on Monday night.
Between one and two percent of all children are believed to have FASD although that could be an underestimate, Dr Palmer said.
The doctor said health officials assessing looked after children only started looking for the disorder in March last year but already more than 100 of the 350 children in the council’s care have been diagnosed with it.
She said: “We have always known alcohol affects children by causing physical disabilities but now it is becoming apparent that alcohol causes damage to a lot more children than we previously thought. The number of children with FASD is snowballing.”
Dr Palmer said many children have previously been diagnosed with other conditions, such as autism, ADHD or attachment disorders, when their behavioural problems and learning difficulties could have been caused by FASD.
She said young people with FASD often have the maturity and ability to learn of a child half their age.
The disorder is caused by women drinking alcohol while pregnant, often before they knew they were pregnant.
Dr Palmer said the alcohol causes brain damage in the developing foetus.
She said the earlier the disorder is diagnosed the better chances health workers have of stopping the child developing secondary disabilities.
Dr Palmer said: “We want to be diagnosing the disorder by the age of six if we are going to get the best outcome for the child.”
The committee heard that training is being extended to increase recognition of the disorder and to help foster carers better look after children with FASD.
Work also needs to be done to ascertain if a woman has been drinking while pregnant, the doctor said.
She said: “When speaking to pregnant women we need to ask them more about their alcohol. We ask a lot about drug use because they are illegal but not enough about their alcohol. When we do ask if a person has been drinking they might well say no, either because they cannot remember or because there is a stigma attached to drinking while pregnant.
“For too long we have been giving mixed messages about how much is alright to drink while pregnant, only recently have we said pregnant women shouldn’t drink at all, we are 20 years behind much of the rest of the western world in that advice.”
Disclaimer: The views and opinions in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Edmonton and Area Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Network.