I didn’t intend to blog about pregnancy, because nothing is more boring than a pregnancy blog. Yet since the cat is out of the bag I might as well discuss drinking during pregnancy. For all my previous pregnancies I took to heart the party line that any amount of alcohol– even a single glass– could irreparably harm the fetus. I avoided all kinds of alcohol, including alcohol based herbal tinctures, alcohol based mouthwash, and wouldn’t even cook with wine.
But when I started drinking wine earlier this year, I read everything I could about the safety and risks of drinking, including during pregnancy. I was surprised by what I found. Current thought seems to be shifting– though not officially– toward the notion that light to moderate drinking has no proven ill effects on the fetus. While there is a great deal of contradictory information out there, even the Wall Street Journal is proclaiming the safety of pregnant women heading to the winery.
I was surprised too in reading about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome to discover that the diagnostic criteria are vague, that the cause of FAS by ethanol exposure is not understood, and that a woman would have to drink a huge amount on a daily basis (more than 2 bottles of wine, or the hard liquor equivalent) to have even a 30% chance of producing a child with FAS. Symptoms of FAS include behavioral traits like impulsivity, learning difficulties, hyperactivity, as well as certain facial features like low set ears and small eyes. The behavioral symptoms can appear any time over the span of childhood– so for instance, a child could seem normal during his younger years, but if he turns out to be a highly impulsive teen, he could be considered to have FAS if his mother drank during pregnancy.
It dawned on me in reading these criteria that two of my children could fit the criteria for FAS– only I didn’t drink while pregnant with them. My 8 year old, who is a year behind in 2nd grade, has global developmental delays which were severe as a toddler. She didn’t even respond to her own name until she was 4, didn’t say words until she was 5, and spent a lot of time curled up in corners (she especially liked curling up under the bathroom sink). But unlike my late talking son who turned out to be something of a brainiac, she struggles with basic academic concepts. She even has some facial features associated with FAS.
My five year old, while not cognitively impaired, has tremendous impulsivity and is wild and defiant. She’s even had violent outbursts in school, steals things, and hoards food (let the ashamed mommy in me point out that none of my other kids are like this). She too has some facial features of FAS including very low set ears. In fact when she was born, my first thought was wow– you look like a baby with FAS! But with her too I was an absolute purist during pregnancy, and other than some advil before I knew I was pregnant, didn’t even take OTC meds.
Had I drunk alcohol during the pregnancy of either child, I’d be absolutely certain I caused their problems. And most clinicians probably would too.
So my point is that the impairments and behavioral traits attributed to maternal alcohol consumption might simply have appeared organically. It’s also possible that the kind of person who drinks heavily through her entire pregnancy probably has behavioral issues of her own, which she then passes down genetically to her children. Personality is in large part genetic (which makes me wonder where my five year old came from, lol).
I’ve combed through my memory of my pregnancy with my 8 year old trying to figure out what I might have been exposed to, to cause her problems. But it was an uneventful pregnancy. I ate healthy, gained a normal amount of weight, her birth was quick and effortless. But had I drunk alcohol I’d be blaming myself, and can only imagine the guilt and shame. So perhaps this alone is good reason to avoid alcohol during pregnancy: if your child is born with problems they would have had anyway, at least you’ll be spared a lifetime of crushing guilt.