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Responding to fetal alcohol impacts in children

16 June 2017
Raising awareness about drinking alcohol during pregnancy

Children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) are more likely to fail at school, have attention problems and talk about killing themselves, according to their teachers, says University of Sydney research.

The new findings reported in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics reveal a range of behavioural and academic problems based on surveys of parents and teachers of primary school Aboriginal Australian children living in remote communities in Fitzroy Valley, Western Australia.

The study was a collaboration between the University of Sydney and two Aboriginal organisations in Fitzroy Valley—Marninwarntikura Women's Resource Centre and Nindilingarri Cultural Health Centre.

Nineteen per cent of the cohort of 108 children aged seven to nine had been previously diagnosed with a FASD. Within the Fitzroy Valley study population, 55 per cent of mothers reported drinking alcohol during pregnancy and of these, 87 per cent drank at high levels. All but two of the assessed children were Aboriginal.

According to teacher reports, children with FASD were:

  • 12 times more likely to talk about killing themselves
  • 21 times more likely to have academic failure
  • 10 times more likely to have attention problems
Our results emphasise that health professionals must consider coexisting behavioural and mental health problems in children with FASD.
Dr Tracey Tsang, University of Sydney

Researchers noted three main kinds of behavioural problems in children with FASD: “Internalizing” behaviours such as, anxiety, withdrawal or depression; “externalizing” behaviour, such as aggression, delinquency; and other problems, such as problems with social skills, thought processing and attention.

“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.

“Our results emphasise that health professionals must consider coexisting behavioural and mental health problems in children with FASD. Early access to appropriate child psychology and psychiatry services is paramount.”

We are working with Aboriginal communities in the Fitzroy Valley to increase awareness of alcohol harms, and support community-led alcohol restrictions, education, and family support.
Emily Carter, CEO of Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre

The study’s senior author, Professor Elizabeth Elliott of the University of Sydney, said: “In addition to difficult behaviours, children with FASD have learning, developmental and physical problems. FASD is preventable and we must educate young women about the harms of alcohol use in pregnancy.”

In contrast to teacher ratings, parent reported behaviour was not significantly different between children with and without FASD.

Ms Emily Carter, the Chief executive of Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre in Fitzroy Valley said: 

“Behaviour problems are the most prominent impact of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. We are working with Aboriginal communities in the Fitzroy Valley to increase awareness of alcohol harms, and support community-led alcohol restrictions, education, and family support.

“Through our Marulu Unit, Marninwarntikura is helping families deal with behavioural issues in FASD through introducing the Positive Parenting Program in the Fitzroy Valley.”

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 Aboriginal children to retain societal protocols and culture including language, stories, ceremonies, and art.

Dan Gaffney

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