A blunt and seemingly common-sense approach to fetal alcohol syndrome may notwork, and worse,may backfire, health experts say.

"I used to think that it was enough just to tell a woman 'you shouldn't drink when you're pregnant,' " said Elizabeth Dawson, a Health Canada nurse in Happy Valley-Goose Bay who chairs a committee in Labrador on FAS prevention.

She admits that she, like many health-care providers, took a narrow approach to the complex problems of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

However, Dawson said the "just don't drink" message often backfires as it lowers some women's self-esteem and makes existing problems worse.

"Some of the messages we have given haven't been respectful. They've further marginalized woman and may have even, in effect, driven women to drink," Dawson told CBC News.

About 100 health-care professionals from across Labrador are gathering in Happy Valley-Goose Bay for a two-day meeting on fighting FAS.

FAS is a large problem in Labrador, perhaps most in the Innu community of Natuashish, where dozens of children have been diagnosed with the disorder in recent years.

Many of the children, who were living in the since-resettled community of Davis Inlet, were involved in a high-profile emergency program in 2001 that saw them flown to St. John's for detox treatment for gas-sniffing. Many of them were diagnosed at the time with FAS as well.

Serious health issues

FAS has been shown to raise a number of serious health issues, including learning disabilities, behavioural problems and physical maladies, and has been linked to crime, dependency on social services, andother difficulties.

Bobbie Boland, a social worker who is speaking at the conference, said more attention needs to be paid to the woman, and not just the fetus, during pregnancy, as well as to the social problems that often leadthem to drink.

"We know that even [with] women who use substances when they're pregnant, 95 per cent of them go to health care, so they are concerned about the health of their babies," Boland said.

Dawson said the conference will help providers put a greater focus on prevention and help improve outcomes.

"We haven't always got the questions right and so we are starting to ask that question: how can we help women and communities to be healthy?"

Dawson said that the incidence of FAS will drop if women feel they are supported, not shamed, and that it is up to an entire community to help women who are pregnant.