By Sophie, biological mum to a teenage son with FASD

In our early 30s, my husband and I decided it was time to start trying for a baby. It was a big surprise to see the two little blue lines on the pregnancy test just six weeks later.

I felt I had a pretty good handle on the ‘Do’s and Don’ts of pregnancy’. I knew that once I became pregnant I was to minimise my coffee and alcohol intake and avoid certain foods.

I had my pregnancy confirmed and told my GP I had drunk quite a lot of wine when out with friends on three occasions before I realised I was pregnant. I was told not to worry, but to avoid drinking to this level again during my pregnancy. I stopped drinking alcohol socially and would pour myself one small glass of wine once a week, well below the guidelines in previous years.

To prevent harm from alcohol to their unborn child, women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy should not drink alcohol.

My son was born at full-term, a beautiful bouncing 4kg (9lb) baby, physically perfect in every way. He cried a lot as a baby, wasn’t able to breastfeed and didn’t sleep much. From his first moments in the world, he was very sensitive to sounds and small changes in his environment. He continued to meet all of his developmental milestones, always slightly late, but not enough to be a concern.

I knew, as his mum, that some of his behaviours and responses were different to his peers. At around six years of age, I took him to see a paediatrician who said, “He’s just an active child, he’s a few months behind his peers developmentally, nothing to worry about, he’ll likely catch up as he matures”.

Sophie says she “drank quite a lot of wine” before realising she was pregnant.

In Year 2 of school, he was identified as needing additional literacy and numeracy support, and we engaged a private tutor too. He continued to achieve grades at the lower end in his school reports, however, the feedback from his teachers about his social skills and effort remained mostly positive in school. There were struggles with behaviour at home, but we focused on his strengths rather than his challenges and parented differently.

In 2018, an article about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), caught my eye. I learnt for the first time that even low levels of alcohol, at any stage of a pregnancy can damage a fetus’ development. I have learnt more recently that more than one in four women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy are unaware drinking even low levels of alcohol during pregnancy can cause FASD.

FASD is the leading non-genetic developmental disorder in Australia caused by drinking alcohol while pregnant. People with FASD experience lifelong physical, behavioural and cognitive challenges.

The more I read about the physical and neurodevelopmental challenges of babies and children with FASD, the more I identified similarities with my son. We sought advice from four different medical practitioners before we found a FASD-informed paediatrician. It took around 18 months to get a diagnosis of FASD for our son.

Our son is now 16. He struggles with his working memory, his attention, following more than one instruction at a time, controlling his impulses, and understanding that actions have consequences. His area of most challenge at the moment, is school however, as he ages, going into the workforce and experiencing independent living will bring with it many more challenges.

Sophie’s little boy is now 16. There is no cure for FASDs, but research shows that early intervention treatment services can improve a child’s development

We are lucky to have been able to provide our son with a supporting home environment. We are incredibly proud of what he is achieving in his life and considering the daily challenges he has to overcome, his resilience, perseverance and strengths are something to behold.

There is a lot of misinformation about alcohol and pregnancy, making it difficult for people to find the most accurate information. If I had known of the potential risks, I would have stopped drinking as soon as we started trying.

I want everyone to know that the guidelines are now very clear. When you start trying for a baby, you need to stop drinking alcohol.

For more information about alcohol and pregnancy, visit Every Moment Matters.

NOFASD Australia provide a free confidential helpline 7 days per week on 1800 860 613 for anyone wanting to discuss their concerns about pregnancy and alcohol.

* The NHMRC Guidelines for alcohol consumption in pregnancy, changed in 2009 and more recently in 2020, advising no alcohol when pregnant or planning a pregnancy.