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Pregnancy and alcohol issue tackled at Detroit Lakes conference

Jody Allen Crowe speaks to a packed room at M State about the severity of exposure to prenatal alcohol for unborn children.

Every drink a mother takes has the potential to take potential away from her unborn child.

That is the message Jody Allen Crowe brought to Detroit Lakes Tuesday as part of the Healthy Brains for Children program, sponsored and organized by the Breakfast and Noon Rotary clubs.

"No single event will affect a community like preventing one child from being exposed to prenatal alcohol use," he said to a packed conference room of listeners at M State.

Crowe, who has been an educator at tribal schools and charter schools in Minnesota for over 20 years, has become an expert on prenatal exposure to alcohol and its effects.

Though he didn't go to college for the subject, after having worked with students for years, he's learned on the job how alcohol affects children.

Educators, he said, "see kids every day, every day." They spend more time with children than a psychologist, psychiatrist or counselor.

During his teaching and administration days, he said there were times he'd come home with his shirt ripped, glasses broken, nose bloodied. He had thought that he'd have those students whipped into shape, but instead, "I didn't understand."

It wasn't the kids' fault that they couldn't grasp what needed to be learned, or the proper way to act, or other issues that were surrounding them. Their brains were damaged.

While some drugs like thalidomide or lead were put in the spotlight to be avoided because of birth defects, alcohol continues to be used without the effects taken seriously by some.

"What we haven't heard across our (nation and world) is what a teratogen it is," he said of alcohol.

When alcohol is the cause of a car accident, it's focused on because it's 100 percent preventable. Same goes for fetal alcohol syndrome.

Up to 40 percent of women say they've drunk alcohol while pregnant, he said. Not that all such incidents result in FAS, but there's always the chance.

Crowe said he measures prenatal exposure to alcohol in stages. Stage 0 is no exposure at all -- i.e., no drinks were ever consumed while the mother was pregnant. Stage 1 is exposure but no one could tell, no damage has been done. Stages go up to Stage 5, which is death - the baby was stillborn, miscarried, or died shortly after birth.

He said that most people have prenatal exposure in their family lineage and maybe don't even know it. He traced his own. Of 104 family members, there were 27 that it was unknown if there was exposure or not, 39 there was no exposure and 38 unborn babies were exposed to alcohol prenatally -- a startling finding.

"There is no family that's not impacted," Crowe said.

"The potential was ripped from them," he added of the children whose mothers drank while pregnant.

"Men are responsible, too," he stressed.

No, men aren't carrying the child, but they contribute to partnership drinking. If the spouse/partner/boyfriend is drinking, the woman is more than likely going to want to drink also. Crowe urged men to be supportive and not drink during pregnancy as well.

Though more damage can be done at certain times of the baby's growth, there is no safe time to drink.

Take a look at the ear of the president on a dime. The size of the ear is the size of an embryo when it is 18 days old and attaches itself to the mother, starting to get nutrients from her.

"How many mothers know they are pregnant at 18 days?" he questioned.

When a mother consumes alcohol, it may only stay in her system for a few hours, but it stays with her unborn child for days, up to 72 hours.

Also, he said, in the third trimester of the pregnancy, the baby's brain grows at the fastest speed of its life, in or out of the womb.

Regardless of whether there are visible traits of FAS -- smaller head size, different eyes and nose, thinner lips -- it's the brain that matters. Showing slides of affected children's brains, he said the corpus callosum of the brain is "like the I-94 of our brain," with information running through it.

In a child with FAS, the corpus callosum is narrowed to Highway 59, but kids are still expected to take in the same amount of information and in the same way as someone without FAS.

"We're putting them in a box and expecting the same," he said.

An FAS child with even more corpus callosum damage could be compared to a frontage road, trying to get the same information as the interstate. Those are the kids that are tested at schools because they have to be, even though everyone knows they are going to fail.

"You failed. Move on," he said.

If a child's brain is damaged with alcohol in just the first 18-26 days in the womb, it's called agenesis of corpus, and the brain has no chance to develop. The specific damage to the brain all depends on how much alcohol was consumed at what stage in the baby's development.

Once the frontal lobes of the brain are damaged, it not only affects a child's ability to learn, it affects the parts of the brain that oversee his or her problem solving, impulses, verbal skills, sexual restraint, focus on attention, empathy, inhibitions and moral compass. The child's emotional age doesn't match his or her actual age.

And, it's a cycle. A mother who has FAS and gets pregnant doesn't know how to care for her children, likely doesn't know the effects of alcohol and drinks while she is pregnant.

It may be surprising who are at the greatest risk to drink while pregnant, however.

First, 63 percent of women are drinking during their childbearing years. And for 70 percent of 22-29 year olds that find themselves pregnant, it was unplanned or unwanted.

But, the profile of the woman most likely to drink while pregnant? A white, single, over age 30 professional, making over $50,000 a year. Why? Because they can afford to go out and have a drink.

Crowe said it's baffling, and frustrating, because some doctors still tell patients that it's OK to have a drink from time to time while pregnant. Shockingly, in some countries, doctors say women can have 17 drinks a week and still have healthy children. And he said for the woman who wants to have her drink, she'll find a gynecologist that says drinking is OK just to justify her drinking.

After the single professional being the most prone to drinking while pregnant comes foster teenagers and adopted children.

Crowe is the founder of the Brainerd chapter for Healthy Brains for Children. The Rotary clubs brought him to speak in hopes of starting a Detroit Lakes chapter of the organization.

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