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Manning up to prevent Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Men have little place to comment on a woman’s behaviour, particularly in pregnancy. However, when the stakes are high enough, as is the case with brain damage caused by alcohol use in pregnancy, it is everybody’s business to speak out.

In doing so, men need to ‘man-up’, and be part of the solution. Put simply, men need to do less to cause women to drink in pregnancy, and support them in taking nine months off. The best way to do this is to have a break from drinking ourselves while our partner is pregnant.

My experience of working with people living with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) has been as a children’s doctor in remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia. Back in 2008 I met a young child and his mother in a remote clinic. The 16 month old had not yet learned any words, nor had he the strength to stand. He was delayed in all areas of development. He had the classic facial features of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – small eye openings, a thin upper lip and smooth area between the lip and nose. His mother had lived a terribly hard life with abuse and trauma her frequent companion. During her pregnancy with this little boy she had drank heavily. She told me that she drank because of her own pain, because drinking helped her to get by. Also she drank in pregnancy because the people around her did so, and she allowed herself to do it because she did not know that it could harm her baby. Her son has permanent brain damage and damage to other organs as well.

Since meeting this mother and her child I have worked with committed community organisations and research partners to lead a clinical team in remote communities diagnosing people with FASD, and providing advice to teachers and families on how to help them to be the best they can be.

Ours is to understand, to problem solve and to support – and not to judge.

Commonly stated reasons for women drinking in pregnancy include having a partner who drinks, and coping with domestic violence. As men we can respect the period of pregnancy as the one shot at developing our child’s brain before birth (a nine month opportunity where the vast majority of brain and body organ development happens). We can respect our partners by supporting them lovingly through nature’s most challenging emotional and physical time – pregnancy. And if we really want to man-up, let’s take a break from drinking for nine months while our partner is pregnant. In doing so, we will be at our best, and allow our child be born at their best.

Photograph of James by Carolyn Constantine.

James Fitzpatrick

James Fitzpatrick

Dr James Fitzpatrick is a full-time Paediatric doctor at Princess Margaret Hospital for Children, Perth and PhD candidate with the University of Sydney.  In 2001 James was named Young Australian of the Year for his longstanding dedication to addressing rural and Indigenous health issues.

He recently led a federally funded project aimed at improving the lives of children living in remote Indigenous communities in the WA Kimberley, in partnership with local community organisations and national research institutes. The work involved estimating for the first time in Australia the prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) in the 40 remote communities of the Fitzroy Valley.  Having documented the prevalence of FASD, James is now working with health and education partners to develop a child health clinic run in schools to help young people to reach their educational potential.

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