Study highlights problem of P.E.I. women drinking while pregnant

Jim Day
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Dr. Janet Bryanton, associate professor at the UPEI's school of nursing, co-led with QEH pediatrician Dr. Kathy Bigsby an anonymous, provincial, population-based study to determine the incidence of prenatal fetal alcohol exposure in P.E.I. newborns.

Queen Elizabeth Hospital pediatrician Dr. Kathy Bigsby knew the problem of women in P.E.I. drinking while pregnant was not minor.

However, she never had any hard data to size up the actual extent of the problem. Now she does. And the numbers are jarring.

From November 2010 to November 2011, a meconium sample (baby’s first bowel movement) was collected from the diaper of 1,307 live P.E.I. newborns, including those born at the IWK in Halifax in what is believed to be the first province-wide study in Canada to involve meconium sampling from all live newborns for a full year.

A total of 1,271 meconium samples were successfully tested for alcohol metabolites (fatty acid ethyl esters or FAEEs) formed by the baby when a mother drinks during pregnancy.

Thirty-nine samples, or 3.1 per cent, returned positive results. Bigsby says the expectation is that about 40 per cent of babies with documented heavy prenatal exposure will likely exhibit fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), an umbrella term that includes a wide range of physical, cognitive and behavioural disabilities resulting from alcohol consumption by pregnant women.

The numbers in the anonymous study add up to at least 16 P.E.I. babies born during the one-year study period likely having FASD: at least 16, likely more.


Bigsby considers the toll heavy — a toll that is rung up year after year after year in the province.

“They are not just numbers,’’ Bigsby said of the disturbing study findings.

“These are Prince Edward Islanders who have been exposed (to alcohol). This is the next generation. So it kind of hits you really hard that way.’’

The effects on a child born with FASD are permanent. The primary disabilities include the presence of an inability to comprehend non-verbal social cues, attention deficits, sensory issues and emotional dysregulation.

Secondary disabilities are problems that individuals may develop as a result of their primary brain dysfunction, such as high risk of early school dropout, incarceration, dependent living and mental health problems like depression and addiction.

FASD is recognized as a significant public health concern having a profound impact on individuals, families and society in general. The estimated cost of FASD in Canada each year is about $5.3 billion and in the Atlantic region about $57 million.

The first major step in addressing the problem in P.E.I., notes Bigsby, was identifying the problem. The first comprehensive study of prenatal fetal alcohol exposure in P.E.I. babies that required the commitment of 80 or so nurses doing the regular collection of samples from babies was that first step.

People here in the province, says Bigsby, can no longer stick their heads in the sand with the belief that FASD is not a problem in Prince Edward Island.

It is. And it is a big problem.

The study determined that at least 3.1 per cent of Island women were drinking frequently during the last six months of pregnancy. No reason to believe that isn’t the case in any given year on P.E.I., give or take a percentage point.

“These are Prince Edward Islanders who have been exposed (to alcohol). This is the next generation." Dr. Kathy Bigsby

Bigsby and UPEI school of nursing associate professor Dr. Janet Bryanton, who led the study together, both say that number needs to come down: way down.

At least 16 P.E.I. babies being born in one year all with FASD, says Bryanton, is “a lot of harm.’’

The harm, of course, is quite avoidable. The answer to the problem is straightforward: get women to stop drinking alcohol while pregnant.

However, reducing the number of women consuming booze during pregnancy, let alone eliminating the occurrence, is no less than a magnificent challenge.

Dr. Nancy Poole, well known for her fetal alcohol spectrum disorder prevention research, says there are “tons of reasons’’ why women drink while they are pregnant.

Some simply are not aware of the risks. Ongoing public education is needed to reach this group. Warning labels on alcohol bottles and health curriculum in high school were a couple of suggestions offered.

Another group, those that know they shouldn’t be drinking during pregnancy but find it hard to stop, require more substantial deterrence, suggests Poole.

Some women who have a difficult time stopping drinking during pregnancy may have a history of complex issues including trauma, abuse, mental illness and poverty.

In some cases, notes Poole, women report that their partner did not want them to stop drinking while they were pregnant. Drinking, in those cases, is a pivotal component of the relationship.

“Alcohol use is a really common thing,’’ said Poole, who notes 75 per cent of Canadian women drink.

“It’s a health problem.’’

She says health-care providers need to be educated on how to have helpful conversations with pregnant women to assist them to not drink during their pregnancy. Addiction treatment, she adds, needs to be catered specifically to pregnant women in need of such intervention.

“We need to be responsive to the need,’’ she said.

“I think it’s (successful intervention) totally doable without a whole lot of money. It’s really about changing the paradigm. How can we be compassionate and effective rather than making (the pregnant woman’s) life hell.’’

Bryanton says the goal of the study is to improve the health of both babies and mothers in P.E.I. Work begins now at formulating approaches to best inform women about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy as well as establishing deterrent measures.

“Our role is to get the information out,’’ she said.

Bigsby says the message needs to be clear: drinking and pregnancy don’t mix. Period.

“Alcohol is teratogenic,’’ she said. “It causes birth defects. We don’t know what the threshold is. Why do we want to discover what the threshold is?’’

Bryanton is more succinct.

“The message that women need to get is they just shouldn’t be drinking during their pregnancy.’’

Organizations: IWK, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, University of Prince Edward Island Prince County Hospital Motherisk Lab Hospital for Sick Children. Canadian Association of Paediatric Health Centres Public Health Agency of Canada Kathy Bigsby and UPEI School of Nursing

Geographic location: P.E.I., Canada, Halifax Prince Edward Islanders Atlantic Prince Edward Island.It Toronto

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Recent comments

  • adoptive mother
    February 10, 2013 - 19:17

    As an adoptive parent of two children of fasd social services seems to feel they need to skirt around the subject of fasd. I won't go into the heartbreaking details but when you are not educated in dealing with an fasd child things go south very quickly. At the time we wished to speak to other families dealing with the same issues we were dealing with. It was like there were no other families with fasd children. Simply amazing I guess maybe this study should be shown to Child and Family since apparently there aren't supposed to be other families that shared our plight. It would probably save alot of other adoptive families the heartache. Alcohol use during pregnancy affects more than just mother and child in alot of cases there are a broad spectrum of people involved, along with broken hearts most often those of the adopted children.

  • Educator
    February 10, 2013 - 11:15

    Considering the number of Educational assistants/Youth workers has doubled in the last decade, I rest my case. There are more and more children identified that need support in school. There are many who never get identified.

  • SickOfItAll
    February 10, 2013 - 08:34

    You know if the mother chooses to drink or do any action that is harmful to her body then she will live the consequences the rest of her life. It doesn't matter that she didn't mean to or she didn't want to etc. Whatever reason. If you are pregnant and you drink you may have a fasd child and that is your responsibility. You know there are pregnant kids out there taking serious drugs and much unknown damage is being caused to the brains of their children. Damage we will not know about for years. Sure Momma is upset or is uneducated [hard to believe in Canada or the USA!] Years ago mothers weren't aware of the correlation of drinking and the harm caused to the baby. Now they are. Now there isn't an excuse to feed your unborn baby liquor or any other mind altering substance. Mind altering - get it? It doesn't just medicate you it medicates your baby and causes them lifelong problems. They face rejection all of their lives because of their behavior. Well their brain is damaged Mom! And YOU are the one who did it to them! Fathers you are their other parent. Speak!

    • Somebody elses job
      February 10, 2013 - 19:55

      I hope your not saying the father should control what the mother should do, Whether it is drinking while pregnant or not the father should just call the QEH. Plus who knows the women could be an alcoholic and trying to stop but their may be people around her drinking. So they need a place to go to talk to someone and not looked bad upon.

  • Red
    February 10, 2013 - 08:32

    PEI courts will put you in jail and criminalize you at the drop of a hat for anything these days...its going to far when you get 60 days for just driving a car when Some one can steal and commit violent assaults and get suspended sentenences

      February 10, 2013 - 17:40

      Isn't it a shame that women who choose to drink and do illegal drugs and bring a child into this world that in a lot of cases the child is disfunctiona all of their life, yet not one single thing is done to that mother. It seems that you would see that ths trend should continue while you rale about the odd drunk driver gets sixty days in jail.What does the say of your priorities?

  • todmama
    February 09, 2013 - 19:58

    Just to answer your question, dmama, my baby was among the 1300 sampled and the nurses explained the study to me before taking the sample.

  • Henry Jenkins
    February 09, 2013 - 16:18

    These are the same folks we'll see in 20 years brawling after a downtown arm-wrestling competition.

  • hugh
    February 09, 2013 - 16:14

    Women that drink and harm their babies should be treated the same way our justice system punishes drunk drivers that kill or harm innocent people.

  • Dmama
    February 09, 2013 - 13:24

    Personally I never had a drop throughout any of my pregnancies , and would be happy to take part in a study that may help other future mothers in some way. But what my question is if this was anonymous did the mothers have any knowledge? It doesn't say anywhere about consent from mothers on samples being taken from their babies. I find that if no consent was given it should be illegal!!! Its mind boggling that its ok to release the stats of something so personal but it's only about a year since we could find out the sex of our own babbies in our own bodies!!!!

    • Sickofit
      February 09, 2013 - 15:56

      If the mother has her baby in a publicly funded hospital where the children are not Identified then what is the problem of consent? This is a medical study to see what is happening to societies children. If the mothers cared so much about their babies then they wouldn't be dosing them with alcohol to start with. By the time the mother gets to the doctors she has probably drank throughout the first trimester anyway and the damage is then caused. You call this releasing the stats of something so personal. it was anonymous and it is my thought that they should be ID and the parents notified of the harm that is possibly done to their child so they can take responsibility for the damage they have done to their child which is irreparable. Then that parent should get a job to pay for the treatments 'their' child requires. I know a child who was born to a drinking and drug using mother who basically has no conscious for the things he has done. But he is the one suffering for his mothers actions. Not only is this boy on drugs to control his behavior many people have suffered because of the results of his actions. It is a criminal offense to willingly harm another person but not to the unborn and that is why people get away with harming the most helpless among us. The child in the womb. You know someone with a child that is the result of them drinking then perhaps you should not be so nice and you should ask them what they were doing drinking while pregnant. These woman should consider getting tubal ligation if they want to party. Sounds tough I know but what about the life the innocent child will lead as the result of their actions. Society should be hanging these women out to dry.

    • Momma
      February 09, 2013 - 15:57

      Consent had to be given. I had my daughter during this time and everything was explained to me and consent had to be given.

    • J
      February 09, 2013 - 17:28

      I remember seeing a sign up at the hospital, the mothers were aware of the study. I don't think there was any way of identifying which babies were the ones with the alcohol in the meconium.

    • Catherine
      February 09, 2013 - 20:02

      DMAMA, I had a baby in 2011 at the QEH and I remember signing a consent form for this study, so yes, the mother's would have been aware.

    • David
      February 09, 2013 - 21:58

      Consent for what? The baby had a crap and they threw it out but also took a sample to test. I'm pretty sure the contents of a bowl movement will never be protected by any law. How dare they try to prevent needless FAS! The testing was for a good reason and the results were anonymous nobody was singled out it was probably even a blind/double-blind study. The data was valuable now we now about 3% of mothers-to-be either drink or maybe are unaware they are ingesting alcohol while pregnant. You do realize alcohol is present in mouthwash, fake vanilla, soy sauce, Dijon mustard, and probably many other everyday items.

  • Jib Bradley
    February 09, 2013 - 12:07

    No wonder, cant even get an abortion on PEI so may as well try and drink it to death.

  • Sylvia
    February 09, 2013 - 12:01

    Tim, what planet do you live on? With an attitude like this, if you have a partner who is pregnant, I feel sorry for her and for her baby.

    February 09, 2013 - 11:27

    So impaired drivers are born that way. No wonder there is such a high perponderence of drunk drivers on PEI. I heard of prgrams from cradle to grave but this is ridiculous. I wonder how many drunk drivers will now use this a defense.

  • Bmac
    February 09, 2013 - 10:55

    Now - Any questions about alcohol being a drug?

  • CareForAll
    February 09, 2013 - 10:50

    I wonder if anywhere in the research someone saw any correlations between higher incidence of drinking and unwanted/unplanned pregnancies. A province where there is no mandatory (throughout highschool) nor extensive Sex-Ed, no Sexual Health Centre, no abortion access, no comfort zone of any kind talking and providing education and services around sexuality/disease/pregnancy ... and they wonder why a percentage of mothers are drinking during pregnancy?! Ya, real hard to figure out.

  • tim
    February 09, 2013 - 10:34

    How can anyone tell a woman what to do with her body? It is her body ,her baby ,mind your own business.

    • Edward Gregory
      February 09, 2013 - 11:43

      Here's where you are absolutely wrong, Tim. I'm a healthcare provider who has seen hundreds of children with FASD (not so much on PEI but in other parts of the country with populations that are well known for lower education levels and chronic alcohol abuse during pregnancy) and I have seen the long term effects of this. It is EVERYONE'S business. Children are innocent victims of a woman's abuse of her body, and society pays the price both monetarily, socially and environmentally. These FASD children require additional social resources (e.g. being placed in care, needing additional school resources, social work, policing, they are non-productive members of society as adults, and the list goes on). Women who drink during pregnancy are assaulting their unborn babies and expecting the rest of society to pay for it. If we lived in a country that did not socially provide for others, you would be right, but clearly, you are wrong!!! You have no counter-argument.

    • Randi
      February 09, 2013 - 12:41

      As opposed to exposing an unborn child to alcohol against his choice? Same argument applies there.. It's the baby's body too and a mother shouldn't make that choice for her baby.

    • Another POV
      February 09, 2013 - 12:44

      @Tim You obviously don't work for any type of social service program based on your comment. The issue is when some, not all, babies are born, they may be put up for adoption, taken into government care, relatives adopt. Think of this child in 18 years from now after brain damage from alcohol and then tell you pointed out in your comment...'yes, let them go ahead and do this to unborn children'. There are certainly women that have no idea they are pregnant and mistakenly drink. Bringing awareness to the issue will only help educate people to be extra careful.

    • LA
      February 09, 2013 - 13:08

      It's your business when the child requires a lifetime of taxpayer-funded intervention services.

    • Bea
      February 09, 2013 - 13:10

      A complete lack of social responsibility is also a sign of FAS

    • Give your head a shake
      February 09, 2013 - 14:10

      Might be her body, but what goes into her body also goes into the baby's body- which I'm sure if the innocent, vulnerable baby could make the choice, he/she would prefer not to grow up with a developmental disability that affects and challenges them every day for the rest of their life.

    • Give your head a shake
      February 09, 2013 - 14:14

      Might be her body, but what goes into her body also goes into the baby's body- which I'm sure if the innocent, vulnerable baby could make the choice, he/she would prefer not to grow up with a developmental disability that affects and challenges them every day for the rest of their life.

    • crazytalk
      February 09, 2013 - 14:55

      So here we are again talking around controlling - regulating - what a woman can do to her body. Be very careful about where this goes. It can be dangerous for an unborn child for the mother to work out, drive, swim, work, etc. Lets think hard before we make these comments. In the same province where it is desperately had to access legal abortions, we are judging women for their behaviors while pregnant.

    • Ricky
      February 09, 2013 - 18:22

      People here are referring to the unborn as an innocent child who isn't choosing to consume alcohol and have brain damage. When it comes to abortion, it's the woman's body and the woman's choice. Now, when it comes to drinking alcohol during pregnancy, all of a sudden it's a societal problem and people are up in arms about the impact on us all. Any disconnect here? Either, it's always the mother's body and the mother's choice, or, it's NEVER just the mother's body and the mother's choice.