Morgan Phillips, 18, looks and acts like any other teenager her age.
She’s articulate, funny and enjoys playing sports.
You wouldn’t notice it at first, but unlike most teens, Morgan can barely read or write. She also has poor memory and impulse control, and finds it hard to grasp abstract concepts like time, money and measurements.
“If people are saying like quarter past, half past and stuff like that, sometimes I can’t understand it. One day I can, the next day I’ll completely forget,” she tells Insight. “Most days are bad, some days are really good, just really depends.”
At age 11, Morgan was diagnosed with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), the umbrella term used to describe a range of alcohol-related neurological disorders. Morgan’s father, Andrew Phillips says he didn’t realise it at the time, but Morgan’s mother was an alcoholic who drank while pregnant.
“It’s a drinking society and there wasn’t anything really said about drinking… none of the doctors said anything to me.” – Tracy Duly.
“At the time we didn’t know,” Andrew says. “Her mum stopped smoking. We changed our diet and our lifestyle a bit to be good parents. Occasionally [we had] a bit of drink or alcohol with a meal. It wasn’t until after, like in hindsight that [I realised] there was a lot of hidden drinking. You just didn’t know was happening.”
For Tracy Duly, she knowingly drank throughout her pregnancy with her daughter Claire, 22, who was diagnosed with FASD. Tracy says she had no idea of the possible consequences and was never advised against drinking.
“I didn’t know I was pregnant till I was three months pregnant with both my children,” she tells Insight. “But even throughout my pregnancy I did drink. I suppose being, not as an excuse, but people in Australia do drink a lot.
“It’s a drinking society and there wasn’t anything really said about drinking… none of the doctors said anything to me.”
‘SPECTRUM OF DISORDERS’
Drinking when pregnant can lead to a whole host of physical, behavioural and developmental problems known as FASD. Out of all these disorders, Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is the most severe. Children with this condition are born with characteristic physical and mental defects, including short stature, and small head and brain.
“There’s a spectrum of disorders that may result from exposure to alcohol in utero,” says paediatrician and FASD researcher, Professor Elizabeth Elliott. “A tenth of those children will have physical disabilities, facial abnormalities and perhaps structural problems such as affecting the heart or the kidneys.
“The other half about have neurodevelopmental problems so behavioural problems, learning problems, problems with attention, but without the physical features. So as the name implies, there is that spectrum of disorders.”
‘NOT DRINKING IS THE SAFEST OPTION’
Many pregnant women have out-of-date information about alcohol. Previous National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guidelines said that women could drink up to seven standard drinks per week. But these guidelines changed in 2009. The number is now zero.
The NHMRC guidelines now state: “For women who are pregnant, or planning a pregnancy, not drinking is the safest option.”
“They’re concerned about stigmatising the mother and children.” – Professor Elizabeth Elliott, paediatrician.
STIGMA ATTACHED TO FASD DIAGNOSIS
But experts fear the message isn’t getting out as there is a lack of awareness of FASD among health professionals.
In a 2006 survey of paediatricians fewer than 19 per cent could identify all four diagnostic criteria for FAS and 69.6 per cent thought that a diagnosis of FAS could be stigmatising. Only 23 per cent routinely asked about alcohol use when taking a pregnancy history.
Professor Elliott, who conducted the survey, says some doctors find it difficult to address maternal alcohol consumption without embarrassing or stigmatising expectant mothers.
“They’re concerned about stigmatising the mother and children,” she says. “They don’t know how to make the diagnosis, they don’t know what to do with the children, what the treatment is, or where to refer the child.”
With about half of all pregnancies being unplanned, doctors say women might drink in the crucial early weeks of pregnancy and not realise the potential damage they’re doing. But Professor Elliott warns that we shouldn’t create “unnecessary” anxiety.
“I think that we’ve got to give a clear message, but we’ve got to try not to create over anxiety in women where it’s unnecessary,” she says. “And we’ve got to provide them with the support to get them through the pregnancy and to assist them to give up whatever stage they disclose that they’re drinking.”
FASD is not recognised as an official disability in Australia, making access to government support and assistance extremely difficult.
This week, Insight speaks to pregnant women, parents, doctors and those with FASD to find out whether any level of drinking is safe during pregnancy, and what the consequences are.
Catch the Insight discussion tonight at 8.30PM on SBS ONE or live stream it at 上海性息网,www.sbs.com.au/insight/live.
Do you think it’s ok to drink when pregnant? Share your thoughts in the comments below.