Pandemic-induced drinking raises concerns over harm to unborn children

BOSTON — The pandemic has created a lot of stress. Often a simple way to find relief is a glass of wine or a beer.

Surveys show drinking is up significantly, particularly among women.

Kristen Erikson adopted infant twins who were subsequently diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder or FASD. She wants to send a strong warning to all women of child-bearing age about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy.

Her twins are now 14 years old, but Erikson remembers clearly when they came into her family’s life.

“As soon as that kid, that infant, is put in your arms you look at them and you say, yes, it’s still, baby.”

Erikson is a nurse who has spent much of her career working with high-risk pregnancies. Because of their unknown history, she knew her children might face subsequent medical issues.

She became frustrated when she was unable to get a clear diagnosis when it became clear to her that something wasn’t right. She often felt dismissed.

“I would say, I’m really concerned about this,” explained the Chelmsford mother. “They would say, well, they’re OK for now. And I really felt like no one was hitting the mark.”

Finally, a teacher validated her concerns.

“She got something that nobody else did about my kids.”

When mothers drink during pregnancy, their children may grow up to exhibit a wide range of effects: aggression, poor social skills, anxiety, stubbornness, a lack of initiative, or poor concentration.

Erikson says these children are often diagnosed with ADHD.

“They also can be frequently diagnosed with autism, and the estimates say the FASDs are 2.5 times as prevalent as autism.”

Many people look for physical clues such as close-set eyes, low-set ears, a thin upper lip, and a less prominent profile to indicate FASD.

Erikson says many children, like her son and daughter, don’t have these traits despite being injured by alcohol.

Dr. Julianne Lauring, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, said “there are reports of women drinking very small amounts and having a baby with fetal alcohol disorders.”

Dr. Lauring added there is no safe amount of alcohol to consume during pregnancy.

That may surprise some women who’ve been told that after the first trimester, a glass of wine here or there is not an issue.

“For a long time, obstetricians have been kind of lenient, saying it’s OK to drink during pregnancy. It’s not true.”

Dr. Lauring called the increased consumption of alcohol by women during the pandemic worrisome.

A study by the Rand Corporation found drinking levels among women soared 41%.

Lauring said it’s too early to know the true impact of this trend.

“These children are just being born now, so it may be the next few years as they start to get into school.”

This worries Erikson. She claims she’s encountered social service providers, schools, and health professionals who haven’t been trained in what to look for when it comes to FASD.

She hopes by sharing her story more women will become aware of a silent culprit behind so many challenges, and no mother will ever regret having opened a bottle of wine when the time comes to reach for a baby bottle.

“Nobody wants to injure their baby. No one wants to cause harm to their baby,” said Erikson.

She’s also working with support groups to create awareness, so children get the right diagnosis sooner. As part of that, she’s advocating for a state bill that would change the definition of a developmental disability so that it would include FASD.

For additional information, there are local resources available:

https://nofas.org/state-resources-for-massachusetts/

https://www.childrenshospital.org/conditions-and-treatments/conditions/f/fetal-alcohol-syndrome-fas

https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/index.html


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