This Wednesday is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) Awareness Day, created to increase our recognition of the risks associated with drinking alcohol during pregnancy. There is no known type, or amount, of alcohol that is safe to drink at any time during pregnancy. Just one drink of alcohol during pregnancy places the baby at risk of FASD.
FASD is a group of conditions that can include physical disabilities, as well as difficulties with behaviour and learning. Effectively these are like a brain injury - they are lifelong and irreversible, and can affect a person in different ways, ranging from mild to severe. In New Zealand it is estimated that up to 3,000 children are born every year with FASD. The lifetime cost of such a condition has been estimated to be up to one million dollars or higher per person. The good news is that FASD is completely preventable. Avoiding alcohol during pregnancy ensures against FASD.
For Far North parenting educator Tania Henderson the harmful effects from mums drinking during pregnancy is commonplace in Northland.
"I am often asked by parents why my children act the way they do," she says. "This is a topic we address within our Tikanga MÄtua Parenting Programme. We explore how our personal choices, as parents, affect the future of, not only, our tamariki, but our mokopuna. We discuss openly the affects and harm that alcohol and other drugs have on the developing baby and it’s brain, and the potential behaviours that tamariki can display. It is through these discussions that parents/mums begin to realise that the behaviours their tamariki are displaying are as a direct result of their alcohol or substance abuse during pregnancy. For some, the information we share is new. For some, even though they knew they shouldn’t be drinking or drugging, they did not fully understand the effect their choices would have on their tamariki."
From that realisation, Tania says she is able to invite the parents to own their kids’ behaviour. This is not to make parents or caregivers feel bad, but to help them develop coping strategies and instil a sense of responsibility to learn how they can help their kids understand themselves.
"These are not kids who are born naughty. They behave differently because their brains are different. It’s harder for them to understand things that normal people do. Because their brains are damaged, they often fail to understand the consequences of their actions. More often than not, this leads the young people into trouble at school and trouble with the law."
Tania encourages women who are pregnant or those who are considering becoming pregnant to choose not to drink alcohol or do other drugs during their pregnancy. She understands that, for some, the drinking, drugging culture can be the norm of a whanau and can be hard to break the cycle. But for those she has worked with, all have expressed a desire to make a change, and are ready to take the first step. She encourages parents to consider parenting from a Te Ao MÄori perspective, and engage the practice of Kaitiakitanga, which for her means to look after and nurture our tamariki, both in and out of the womb, provide them with love, warmth and a stable home to give the best possible start to life.
"I want all the whanau to support hapu mamas to give their unborn child the best start in life."
Northland health promotion advisor Dave Hookway agrees with Tania and endorses the new Health Promotion Agency "Don’t Know, Don’t Drink" campaign which invites women who may have had unprotected sex, missed their pill or be late for their period, to not drink alcohol until they know they are not pregnant.
"The most critical time of development for a fetus is the first trimester," says Mr Hookway. "We know from New Zealand research just released that 71 per cent of women consumed alcohol prior knowing they were pregnant and 21 per cent consumed alcohol during their first trimester."
"We all can raise awareness by sharing the risks associated with FASD with the women in our lives who are of childbearing age. Since pregnancies are sometimes unplanned, it is important for women to know that whenever becoming pregnant is possible, as well as during pregnancy, it is vital to avoid drinking alcohol."
A recent FASD and Justice Forum in Whangarei highlighted widespread concern from health and social support agencies, as well as educators and the police, over the number of children thought to be affected by FASD in Northland. As a result, a new Northland FASD Network will be established on October 12 with the aim of providing further training and support to people working with whanau, as well as working to set up local support groups for those seeking further help for their young people.
"The time is right for us to take action locally on this very important issue," says Mr Hookway. "Alcohol problems tend to be intergenerational and by starting with women at pregnancy, we are offering a new generation a clean start in life."
If you have any concerns about your drinking or that of others, you are encouraged to phone the free Alcohol Drug Helpline on 0800-787-797.
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