Dangers of drinking during pregnancy and foetal alcohol spectrum disorders

Drinking while pregnant can cause physical, mental, behavioural and learning disabilities in children.

Shanice Klaasen’s mother was an alcoholic who died after being stabbed by thieves as she returned from a tavern early one morning. Shanice was 3.

That was 20 years ago, but Shanice, who now stays in Wynberg, continues to live with the choices her mother made while she was pregnant with her. She has foetal alcohol syndrome.

Foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) are a range of conditions that can occur in an individual whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. These may include physical, mental, behavioural, and/or learning disabilities with possible lifelong implications. The most severe form of this is foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).

On September 9, every year, the world observes International Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Awareness Day. Bells are rung at 9:09am in every time zone around the world and on the day, there are awareness drives about the plight of those who struggle with FASD.

The first International FASD Awareness Day was on September 9 1999. The day was chosen so that on the ninth day of the ninth month of the year, the world remembers that during the nine months of pregnancy, a woman should abstain from alcohol for their baby’s health.

The Association for Alcohol Responsibility and Education (Aware.org.za) describes FASD on its website as the leading cause of preventable birth defects and developmental disabilities in children around the world and is more common than Down syndrome, spina bifida and autism combined.

Ingrid Louw, CEO of Aware.org.za, says, “The really sad thing is that although the damage caused by FASD is permanent, it is 100% preventable. Any amount of alcohol can cause FASD, and all you need to do to prevent it is not drink when you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant.”

FASDcanaffectanyone, irrespective of their socio-economic status.

Shanice, who grew up in a small town in the Eastern Cape called Berlin, with her grandmother, said many people did not understand her condition, and she was often labelled as a naughty child.

“I was born premature; my family says I was so small I was the size of Sunlight (the 500g soap bar).”

In primary school she faced taunts and bullying from the other children.

“They made jokes about me and called me mosquito because I was small and I was always jumping up and down, doing silly things.

“Many kids who have FAS are like me, small and hyper. I just couldn’t sit still and I was always getting into trouble with the teachers, I failed because I couldn’t concentrate.”

Shanice says she leaned towards the arts and sports in school because she struggled academically.

“My teachers encouraged me to do netball, swimming and drama so I could use all my energy there, and not be seen as the weird kid.”

She now works as a part-time swimming coach and call-centre agent.

Her condition also causes a strain in her relationships with people because she is often misunderstood, she says.

“Sometimes I make decisions that don’t even make sense to me, and later on, I’ll be like, ‘What the hell was that?’ Sometimes I really overreact, I’ll throw tantrums or have an outburst. I’ve always been like that, and people don’t understand that this is a mental thing. People will make me feel like I’m hard to love and be around. It’s not easy living with FAS.”

Shanice says although she often gets frustrated when she thinks about her mother, and how she drank when she was pregnant with her, she also understands that she was young and turned to alcohol because she could not deal with the hardships in her life.

“My mom had me when she was 19. I know that I wasn’t planned. My aunts also tell me that she was in denial about me at first, and I think that’s why she didn’t stop drinking (during the pregnancy). She went through a lot of abuse from boyfriends and other stuff, and she didn’t get the help she needed, so she drank for the wrong reasons. Turning to the bottle is never the answer.”

Shanice says she shares her story about FAS with people in her life because she hopes it will help them make better decisions about alcohol.

“People always ask me if I drink; yes, I do drink, but I’m responsible with it, and I would never want to put an innocent unborn
baby through what I’ve been through.”