Children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder caused by their mothers drinking alcohol during pregnancy are more likely to fail at school, talk about killing themselves and have problems paying attention.
These are the findings of a University of Sydney study published this month based on surveys of teachers and parents of primary school age, mostly Aboriginal children, living in remote communities in WA’s Fitzroy Valley.
The study, reported in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, found a range of behavioural and academic problems that affected children during their schooling years.
A group of 108 children aged 7-9 formed the basis of the study. Nearly 20 percent had been previously diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
Within the Fitzroy Valley study population, 55 percent of mothers reported drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Of these, 87 percent drank heavily, the study said.
The children’s teachers reported that those with FASD were 12 times more likely to talk about killing themselves, 21 times more likely to fail in school and 10 times more likely to have attention problems than other children.
Parents did not report any significant differences to children who did not have FASD.
The researchers found three main kinds of behavioural problems in children with the disorder.
These were internalising behaviours such as anxiety, withdrawal or depression; externalising behaviours such as aggression and delinquency; and problems with social skills, attention and thinking.
“These findings highlight the need for support for families, carers and teachers to handle the behavioural and mental health problems in children with FASD,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Tracey Tsang of the University of Sydney.
“This is particularly challenging in remote and disadvantaged communities.”
The study’s senior author, Professor Elizabeth Elliott of the University of Sydney, said young women should be educated about the harms of alcohol use in pregnancy.
Emily Carter, chief executive of Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre in Fitzroy Valley, said the centre was working with communities to increase awareness of the dangers of alcohol for unborn babies.
“Through our Marulu Unit, Marninwarntikura is helping families deal with behavioural issues in FASD through introducing the Positive Parenting Program in the Fitzroy Valley,” she said.
The study was initiated by Aboriginal community leaders concerned about the impact of prenatal alcohol exposure on children’s behaviour, learning and development, and the ability of children to retain societal protocols and culture including language, stories, ceremonies and art.