The latest research from the longitudinal Growing Up in New Zealand (GUiNZ) study, published in last month’s Early Human Development journal, is being highlighted to mark Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder week. It follows earlier research released in July that found that 23 per cent of women of the 6800 pregnant women who signed up to the University of Auckland-led study in 2010 continued to drink alcohol during the first three months of their pregnancies.

More than 6000 of the mothers were interviewed about their child at nine months and two years and the latest research a shows direct link been alcohol consumption during pregnancy and a negative effect on the temperament and behaviour of their children.

Even the infants of mothers who stopped drinking after becoming aware they were pregnant had lower scores on infant behaviour and temperament questionnaires compared with mothers that didn’t drink – even after adjusting for socio-demographic factors. Children whose mothers drank four or more drinks per week during pregnancy were more likely to have conduct problems with higher ‘difficulties’ scores at age two.

Fetal Alcohol Network New Zealand (FANNZ) coordinator, Alcohol Healthwatch’s Christine Rogan says the study findings are concerning, given that the GUiNZ study collected data in 2010 and since then studies have indicated a 43 per cent increase in hazardous drinking by women between 2011 and 2016.

“This study strengthens public health advice to not drink alcohol at any time during pregnancy or if there is a risk of being pregnant. Education on its own is known to be insufficient but questions must be asked why so little is being done to support women to know why it is important to have alcohol-free pregnancies,” said Ms Rogan.

The study authors said their findings had implications for men and women who drink, health professionals and for the availability of contraception to those who drink, but do not plan to get pregnant.

Rogan said people need to understand the link between drinking during pregnancy and the difficulties this can lead to as children grow up. “We are concerned about binge drinking, but clearly what this New Zealand study shows is there is no amount of alcohol that is safe for a developing baby.”

Health Minister Dr David Clark, in a press release to mark FASD Awareness Day on Sunday, said a range of initiatives were underway under the cross-agency FASD action plan to help prevent FASD and to identify and support people affected by FASD and their whānau.

This includes the Ministry of Health working with the GUiNZ team since 2016 to develop a set of psychometric indications to identify children with developmental or learning difficulties.

A number of children from the study have been offered a clinical assessment to see whether FASD was the likely cause of their difficulties and the Ministry expected to be able to provide an estimate of the prevalence of FASD in New Zealand children when the data is available from the assessments of the GUiNZ cohort at age eight.

Also part of the FASD action plan is the Health Promotion Agency’s Don’t know? Don’t drink campaign, and the Waitemata, Northland, Tairāwhiti and Hawke’s Bay District Health Boards’ pregnancy and parenting programmes, which support pregnant mums and parents of young children with drug and alcohol issues.

The Ministry of Health has also launched an FASD information page and on September 24 will host a cross-agency FASD seminar on working with families who have FASD members.

The Health Professional Agency is currently working with professional colleges to develop e-learning modules to support best practice around alcohol and pregnancy and Matua Raki, the national centre for addiction workforce development, was working with the Ministry to co-design training and resources for frontline health professionals to identify people with neurodevelopmental impairment and respond appropriately.

Key Facts about FASD

  • There is no amount of alcohol that is considered safe to consume at any time during pregnancy.
  • Alcohol consumed during pregnancy increases the risk of central nervous system impairment that are behind the behavioral and intellectual disorder of FASD.
  • The cognitive deficits and behavioral problems of FASD are lifelong.
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is a medical term used to describe a cluster of significant adverse effects when a baby is exposed to alcohol before birth.
  • Studies have consistently shown that identifying and providing early intervention is a protective factor for life.
  • The Ministry of Health estimates that over 50 percent of pregnancies are alcohol exposed.
  • The number of individuals affected by FASD in New Zealand remains unknown.

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