Free local services help young kids overcome pre-birth alcohol exposure

There's nothing quite so heart-rending as a debilitating birth defect, an innocent child confronted with a lifetime of struggle. Even more disturbing are birth defects that could have been avoided.

Lower Columbia communities, which have a high level of alcohol abuse, also have many babies, children and adults handicapped by exposure to alcohol consumed by their mothers during pregnancy.

This doesn't mean those moms are bad people. Pregnant women who use alcohol often share a sort of communal perception that it does no real harm in moderate quantities. But this belief has some major flaws.

A revealing recent overview in a national publication drives home the point that alcohol exposure is more remarkably toxic than any other drug on developing fetuses. But it's a problem that lends itself somewhat to complacent behavior because full-blown fetal alcohol syndrome [FAS] may only appear in four out of 100 cases of heavy drinking during pregnancy.

This syndrome is what most people think of when they consider alcohol-related birth defects. Individuals with FAS have a distinct pattern of facial abnormalities, growth deficiency and evidence of central nervous system dysfunction.

The problem is that alcohol exposure isn't an all or nothing problem for developing fetuses, but a broad range of harmful impacts.

A study published last year found there are small but significant impacts on the fetus if mom drinks as little as one and a half alcoholic beverages a week.

"The children were in the normal range of growth, but if you compare them to children whose mothers didn't drink at all, they weighed less, were shorter and had smaller head circumferences," the study's author reported.

What this means is that a child who had the potential of having a 105 I.Q. instead has 100, or that the child's motor skills are good enough for walking but not quite good enough to make the football team.

Alcohol exposure may also show up in behavior problems, learning difficulties - especially arithmetic - speech problems, impulse control, poor judgment and a host of related issues.

Our communities are rife with such issues, as indeed they are with substance-abuse problems in general.

When Peninsula students were recently asked if they felt there was a drug and alcohol problem in the area, 309 students said yes, while only 69 disagreed. One high school senior responded to the question with "Duh!!"

So, considering there is a drinking problem, and figuring it's not going to get better anytime soon, what do we do?

If the mistake has already been made, or if your child has signs of difficulties for any other reason, it's very important to realize that it isn't too late to take action.

Early intervention in the years before children start school can go a long way toward helping them achieve their full potential.

Many people don't realize that the Ocean Beach School District offers free services to children with special needs from birth, alcohol-related and otherwise. Many also don't understand the significance of early intervention.

Local specialists often have parents tell them that they would have brought their children in earlier had they known services were free, available and necessary. Call the school district for information.

By having your child evaluated and by following through with any expert recommendations, parents and other caregivers can make real progress in making up for past behavior.

There is no safe level of alcohol use during pregnancy. Giving up booze for nine months is a small price to pay so that your child can achieve his or her full potential for 90 years.

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