P.E.I. study shows surprising fetal alcohol disorder numbers

A new study gives Prince Edward Island health-care workers an indication of how many Island women may be drinking heavily during pregnancy.

A new study gives Prince Edward Island health-care workers an indication of how many Island women may be drinking heavily during pregnancy.

For one year, health officials collected a sample from the first bowel movement of nearly every baby born on P.E.I.

About 1,300 samples were tested to see if the baby's mother had been drinking heavily in the last six months of pregnancy.

Researchers say the results were eye-opening.

'Individuals with FASD are over-represented in prison populations.'—Dr. Kathy Bigsby, pediatrician

The study results show that at least 3.1 per cent of PEI babies were exposed to frequent prenatal alcohol consumption after the first trimester of pregnancy. With those results, the researchers could estimate1.3 per cent of babies — or 16 babies from the 1,300 sampled — will have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). 

Janet Bryanton, one of the study's researchers, said the results were surprising.

"To find out that yes, on P.E.I. we have the same problem, at the same rate as anywhere else in Canada — it really presents reality to you," she said.

Education is key, say researchers

Bryanton said it's important to educate moms and society in general about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy. She said P.E.I. could do more to inform expectant mothers. 

"I think we are behind and it's time that we start to move on this issue," she said.

Pediatrician Dr. Kathy Bigsby said FASD is a lifelong condition that comes with a wide range of physical, cognitive, and behavioural problems.

FASD causes a range of physical and psychiatric problems, from learning disabilities to behavioural problems. Affected children with FASD can also show a wide range of socially inappropriate behaviours, including lying, stealing and an inability to differentiate right from wrong. 

Bigsby said early diagnosis can help, but can be difficult if moms aren't prepared to say they drank.

"When I looked at the results and reflected on how often I get that history from moms, it's very infrequent that I get that story," she said. 

Bryanton agreed that it can be difficult to get the full story on a women's health.

"Because of the social stigma that's associated with drinking during pregnancy, women are not comfortable telling their health-care providers — health-care providers are not comfortable asking the questions and sometimes we have to ask those difficult questions to actually help women who might need our help," she said. 

Bigsby said FASD is difficult, not just for families, but for society as a whole. 

"Individuals with FASD are over-represented in prison populations," she said. 

"They get into more trouble with the law, they have more difficulty holding down jobs, they put strain on all our systems and so there have been some estimates made of a lifelong cost of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and it is a huge cost." 

A public forum on FASD in the Atlantic region is planned for early February in Charlottetown. 

The researchers said it's a good first step to reducing the number of babies born with the disorder.


  • Babies were not tested for or diagnosed with FASD, as this story previously reported, but the study used statistical analysis to estimate how many babies would have it.
    Jan 22, 2013 10:07 AM AT