Research suggests Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder could affect as many as 5% of children.

A local doctor is working to bring light to the disease, that’s not often talked about.

“It’s a tough subject to bring up, use of something that is legal. I don’t know why it is, it just is ‘Hey did you drink?’ you know it’s hard for doctors to ask that question for some reason, so we miss it.” Dr. James Hocker, Medical Director of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the Children’s Hospital of Illinois, explains.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome often gets overlooked or even misdiagnosed because of the stigma surrounding it.

However, doctors say 50% of pregnancies are unplanned and many cases occur because a mother simply doesn’t know. Critical organ development happens within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, before some women find out they’re pregnant. More than 50% of women of child-bearing age consume alcohol.

Dr. Hocker says the effects of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders last a lifetime. The syndrome causes brain damage which can lead to intellectual impairment, attention problems, and trouble in school.

Doctors add that no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy. He adds it is not only a disorder associated with binge drinking. Binge drinking for a woman is classified as having more than 4 drinks in one sitting. Still, Hocker points out that even drinks like expensive French wine can still cause brain damage in an unborn child. 

“Mothers don’t mean to do that to them. It’s something they either didn’t know about or they couldn’t help. It’s nobody’s fault. Nobody makes a conscious decision they’re going to harm their fetus or baby.” Hocker explained.

But, the disorder is 100% preventable, which is why he says focusing on educating the expecting mother is key.

“Even though she might not know she’s pregnant if she stops right then and there that child’s going to have a better chance.” Hocker said.

It’s the reason Dr. Hocker is teaching other healthcare professionals about it and advocating for screening expecting mothers to better prevent and diagnose FASD. He also hopes testing for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome at birth becomes a standard in the future.

“Vast majority of these kids look like every other child and so we have to think about it we just have to it just has to be in what we call our differential diagnosis that maybe this is from prenatal alcohol.” Hocker said.

Getting an earlier diagnosis means children can get the help they need.