Around one in 10 babies are born each year with some form of disorder as a result of their mother drinking alcohol during pregnancy, with an estimated 600 having the most severe effects on their brains.
The HSE estimates that around 6,000 babies a year are born each year in Ireland with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) and 600 with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), the most severe form of FASD.
About 58,443 babies were born here last year, meaning around one in 10 were born with a form of FASD.
The figures from the HSE also show that the number of hospital discharges involving newborns who had a diagnosis of being affected by their pregnant mother’s use of drink or drugs rose to 102 in the first year of the pandemic, compared to 96 in 2019.
A World Health Organisation study estimated that Ireland had the third-highest rate of FASD globally, at 47.5 per 1,000 population.
HSE official Mary Joe Biggs said information on children born addicted to or severely affected by alcohol was not easily available, as the impact on children, particularly in relation to alcohol use, ranges across a spectrum, with no reliable clinical test or screening test available for more mild and subtle cases.
“The best available evidence estimates that about 600 Irish babies are born each year with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, with a further nine to 10 times this number of babies born annually in Ireland who have other Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders,” she said in response to a parliamentary question from Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín.
“The majority of these children will have no visible signs of disability at birth and difficulties may not manifest until preschool or school age.
“As there is no register of persons with neurodevelopmental disorder in Ireland, no up-to-date data are available on cases of FASD in Ireland.”
She added that the HSE recorded discharge data per episode of care.
Patients may be admitted to hospital more than once in any given time period with the same or different diagnosis.
The HSE said that even a small amount of alcohol at any stage of pregnancy can harm a baby’s development and may have lifelong effects such as FASD.
FASD is a group of disorders caused by prenatal alcohol exposure, which are also associated with a range of lifelong physical, mental, educational, and behavioural difficulties.
Alcohol has an adverse effect on the developing brain, and on body organs.
It is often an invisible disability, yet prenatal alcohol exposure is the leading preventable cause of neurodevelopmental disorder.
People with FASD experience lifelong challenges and may need support with many aspects of their health. They may struggle with learning, memory, attention, communication, emotional regulation, and social skills.
It can cause learning difficulties and behavioural issues for a child, and they may struggle to get along with other people and have emotional and mental health problems. They may also be smaller than expected and have problems with eating and sleeping.
There are no tests to diagnose FASD, meaning doctors must rely on physical or mental signs. Typically they look for abnormal facial features, lower than average height or weight, and central nervous system problems.
Tips to help pregnant women include planning alcohol-free activities, avoiding triggers (people and places) that encourage drinking and asking partners, friends and family for support.