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New Test Exposes Drinking During Pregnancy

Test Can Help Diagnose Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Early


Updated November 23, 2003

Mothers who drink excessively during pregnancy may no longer be able to hide that fact from their doctors, thanks to a new test developed by the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children.

Doctors at the hospital have developed a new test for newborns which can detect how much their mothers drank alcohol in pregnancy, which provides a new method for the early diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome.

The test involves analyzing the baby's meconium -- the black, tar-like first bowel movements of all newborns -- which is a result of having digested amniotic fluid in the womb. They look for levels of fatty acid ethyl esther, which is a chemical compound detectable after the first trimester and collects in the meconium as the unborn child is exposed to more alcohol.

In the past, hairs from newborns could be examined to determine if the child had been exposed to the mother's drug abuse, but there was no test that could determine prenatal alcohol exposure. If mothers lied about their excessive drinking during pregnancy, it might take years before the affects of their drinking could be seen in the symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome in their children.

The new test gives healthcare providers a chance to provide early intervention services for the child, who can experience brain damage and mental retardation which might not show up until years later as impulsive behavior and learning difficulties.

"The problem is not only the possibility of fetal alcohol syndrome, but also a situation where the baby goes home to a mother who is an alcoholic whose main purpose in life is to make sure she gets enough alcohol. So how can she care for that baby?" Julia Klein, director of the Motherisk fetal toxicology laboratory, which developed the meconium test, told reporters.

"Meconium is like a trash can," Dr. Klein said. "What the fetus experiences in utero accumulates there, and it stays there until the baby is born, so it's a very good medium for measuring what the fetus is exposed to."

Only tiny amounts of fatty acid ethyl esther is detected in the first bowel movement of a baby born to a woman who only drank occasionally during pregnancy, but it will appear in abundance for babies born to women who drank regularly or were binge drinkers.

Doctors said a positive test does not guarantee that the newborn will suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome symptoms, but can give healthcare providers an head start on providing intervention services for those who are affected.

  1. About.com
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  3. Alcoholism
  4. Women and Alcohol
  5. Pregnancy and Drinking
  6. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
  7. New Test Developed to Detect Heavy Drinking During Pregnancy

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