I didn’t know I was harming my babies

One mum’s warning to all pregnant women.

The reason behind her boys’ illnesses shocked Anne.

Here, Anne, 63, tells the story in her own words.

Go to the pub and have a few drinks with your husband,’ my obstetrician smiled.

Nearly nine months along with our first bub, I’d just had an amniocentesis. The procedure, where some fluid from around the baby is taken, was to test for any abnormalities. ‘It can bring on early labour and alcohol will suppress it,’ he explained. He knows best, I thought, trusting his advice implicitly.So my hubby, Don, and I headed to our local pub – on doctor’s orders. It was 1981 and while each sip went down smoothly, I had no idea how rough the future would be. The instant I knew I was expecting, I’d quit smoking. But my doctor never once told me to stop drinking.

The week before discovering I was eight-weeks along, I’d had a few too many at a party.‘Will it affect the baby?’ I’d asked him. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ he replied. ‘It’ll be fine.’ With his seal of approval, I kept drinking socially until my precious Mick was born. He was slightly underweight, but otherwise perfect. But back at home, my mum’s intuition told me something was wrong. No matter what I did, my beloved boy cried relentlessly and didn’t thrive until I switched him to formula. One night, Mick was burning up. The thermometer displayed a terrifying 40C. His tiny body spasmed with strange jerky movements. After a cool bath and a dose of baby paracetamol, Mick was fine, but my anxiety was through the roof.What’s wrong with him? I fretted, feeling completely helpless. A paediatrician diagnosed him as lactose intolerant.

Over the next few months, Mick caught every bug under the sun. He kept missing his milestones, too. Eventually, my boy caught up and was a delightful, curious toddler. When Mick was three, I discovered I was expecting again! Overjoyed, I was also terribly scared. How will I cope with another sick bub? I panicked. Cooking dinner, I’d wind down with a glass of rum and milk. Then, I’d have another as we ate. If I’d known the danger I was putting my unborn child in, I’d have poured them down the sink. Like his big brother, Seth arrived via C-section and was flawless. He fed without an issue, slept like a trouper and walked at just nine months. ‘He has two speeds!’ I’d joke. ‘Either full throttle or out like a light.’

But when Seth was three, he began to have astronomical meltdowns. He’d fling his tiny body at the wall, punching the hard surface with his fists as he screamed the house down. What am I doing wrong? I fretted. As Seth grew up, his behaviour spiralled and he found it hard to make new friends. Mick had headaches and epilepsy and they both struggled with school work. I’d have done anything to help my boys, and when Seth was diagnosed with ADHD at 13, I was grateful to have an answer.

Mich as a child
Mick as a child (Credit: Supplied)
Seth in his teens
Seth in his teens (Credit: Supplied)

After leaving high school, he started drinking alcohol, often disappearing at night. A mother’s worst nightmare, he even tried to take his own life. ‘What’s wrong with me, Mum?’ he asked, distraught. I don’t know… I thought. But I’m going to find out! Throwing myself into research, I read everything I could on ADHD. Scrolling through an article online, three words flew off the page – Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). I read with horror that children whose mothers drank heavily during pregnancy could be born underweight, intellectually impaired and with physical defects and health issues. Their hyperactivity, inattention and impulsive behaviour was often mistaken for ADHD. Terrifyingly, it was a brain injury. I hurt my son, I realised, my world tearing apart.

Staring at photos of Seth, then 16, I had to admit that he had several distinguishing FAS features – a thin upper lip and a flat philtrum, the strip between the nose and the mouth. Mick, 19, didn’t, but I learned that it was a widely varying spectrum – not everyone did. Still, he had other symptoms that matched perfectly. I’d caused irreparable damage to my beautiful boys.How am I going to tell them? I panicked. Breaking the news to Don, he was upset but supportive. Telling the boys together, they were calm. ‘What does this mean for us?’ Mick asked, while Seth seemed relieved to have a reason.

family photo
Don, Mick, me and Seth (left) My precious boys, Mick and Seth (right) (Credit: Supplied)
Me today - I wish I could turn back the clock
Me today – I wish I could turn back the clock (Credit: Supplied)

After desperately trying in Australia with no luck, a doctor in Canada officially diagnosed both my sons with what’s now known as Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Mick, now 37, is married with a beautiful child and works in mining. A dad-of-four, Seth is a whiz with tools and can fix anything. Still, my boy grapples with depression. ‘Nobody knows what goes on in my head,’ he says.

I’m responsible for my son’s pain and I want to make sure no other families have to go through what we have. Now, I run the Russell Family Foetal Alcohol Disorders Association – a not-for-profit charity that strives for prevention. If you’re expecting, please stop drinking right now.The sooner you stop, the healthier your child will be. Any alcohol can harm your unborn bub. It’s just not worth it.

Read more in this week’s issue of that’s life!

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