International FASD Awareness Day

For Northland mum and dance choreographer Alannah Curtis, the decision to stop drinking alcohol when she found out recently that she was pregnant with her second child was obvious.

Alannah became pregnant with her first child when she was 17 and says she stopped drinking immediately she discovered she was pregnant. “I had a lot of pressure from my friends at the time to drink, and retreated from situations where alcohol would be offered,” she says.   Seven years on, Alannah finds her friends much more supportive in understanding the importance of her decision not to drink alcohol in her current pregnancy.  “I still go out”, she says “and it’s easier to say NO to alcohol now and just to say that it is because I am pregnant. To me baby is my number one priority and I want baby to be as healthy as possible and have the best start in life.”

According to Ministry of Health figures, one in four mothers continues to drink alcohol during pregnancy.  Northland District Health Board Health Promotion Advisor Dave Hookway says “It is important for women to understand that there is neither safe amount nor time to drink alcohol during pregnancy. Women who do drink whilst pregnant put their unborn child at risk of physical, mental, behavioral and learning disabilities with lifelong effects.”

Such effects are now referred to as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder - FASD for short - and have previously been thought to affect at least 1 in every 100 children born in New Zealand each year.  However, Dave Hookway notes that “In New Zealand, about 1 in 10 pregnant women drinks alcohol at levels that definitely puts their babies at risk for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and as a result there could be up to 3,000 babies born every year with FASD."  

Dave and others have worked for a number of years promoting education about the importance of being alcohol free during pregnancy and facilitating workshops with Northland community and health workers promoting better understanding of the potential harmful lifelong effects of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.  “Our Child Health Services are seeing a notable increase in the number of referrals they receive to assess young people who are suspected of having been affected by their mother’s consumption of alcohol while pregnant. We don’t have data that indicates more alcohol is being consumed by pregnant mothers. I believe that this increase in referrals is in direct response to an increased awareness of the consequences of drinking by hapu mammas and an increased desire to see that children possibly affected by this receive the right sort of diagnosis and follow up.”

“Pregnant women also need to remember that if they choose to breast feed their baby, they also should continue to refrain from drinking alcohol especially during the first month,” says Dave.  “Alcohol passes through the breast milk to the baby”.

Alannah says that she stayed alcohol-free until after she had finished breast-feeding her first child. “I knew alcohol can be passed through my breast milk and I didn’t want my daughter to be exposed to this”. When asked if she found this was hard, she was adamant… “No way. Your baby is your priority and once you get pregnant it’s easy enough just to say no. I plan to do the same this time round as well.”

September 9
th marked the 15th anniversary of the International FASD Awareness Day. This day was chosen so that on the ninth day of the ninth month of the year, the world will remember that during the nine months of pregnancy a woman should abstain from alcohol. “FASD is completely avoidable if you do not drink while you are pregnant,” says Dave.  He reminds pregnant women that it is never too late to stop drinking and encourages them to phone the free Alcohol Drug Helpline on 0800-787-797 if they are worried about their drinking.

Alannah Curtis

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