Researchers find startling trend among pregnant teen drinkers

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — It’s a startling trend: Substance abuse is high among pregnant middle school students, according to a new study. The finding is the result of a recent study, possibly the largest of its kind according to Dr. Christopher Salas-Wright, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin.

Using a large sample, nearly 100,000 adolescent girls nationwide between the ages of 12 and 17, the study examines the relationship between substance use and teen pregnancy. Salas-Wright says 810 girls reported they were pregnant at the time of the survey. A surprising number of the pregnant teens—nearly 3 in 5 (59 percent)—admitted to using drugs or alcohol in the previous 12 months, a rate researchers say is nearly two times as great as nonpregnant teens.

“Study findings point not only to a relationship between pregnancy and prior substance use, but also suggest that substance use continues for many teens during pregnancy.”

Salas-Wright says the most surprising result showed extremely high rates of substance abuse among the youngest of the study participants, “roughly 1 in 3 pregnant teens between the ages of 12-14 reported using alcohol or illicit drugs during the past 30 days,” he says.

The study suggests many teenagers may not be getting the message about the dangerous risks of substance abuse during pregnancy.

A Dangerous Combination

According to the Texas office for Prevention of Developmental Disabilities, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder or FASD “is an umbrella term used to describe the range of neurological, behavioral and effects caused by the use of alcohol during a pregnancy” and may occur in 1 in 100 live births nationally. Of approximately 380,000 Texas births, 3,800 may have FASD.

It’s a statistic one Austin mom knows very well. KXAN agreed to hide her identity in order for the mother to openly discuss her drug and alcohol use during pregnancy. “Heather” as she asks us to call her, was a teenage alcoholic.

“I started drinking alcohol at age 10. My mother was an alcoholic and cocaine addict,” remembers Heather.

She drank heavily through several teen pregnancies including one that landed her daughter in the neonatal intensive care unit. Heather’s daughter was born nearly three months premature with a 30 percent chance of survival.

Pointing to pictures of her daughter weighing 1 pound, 3 ounces at birth, Heather says her baby, “could not breath for herself, the machine is attached to her mouth and it is breathing for her. You could see the tube up her nose which is feeding her, all because I chose to drink and use alcohol through my pregnancy.” Heather says she knew she was pregnant at the time but continued her substance abuse despite the risks.

“We’re seeing a lot more at risk behaviors in our teen populations,” explains Dr. John Gianopoulos, CEO of Perinatal Programs and Service at Seton Healthcare Family. “The big problem with that [young girls] population is almost all of their pregnancies are unattended so they don’t even know they’re pregnant in the very early part of their pregnancy.”

Dr. Gianopoulos says he has seen 100 FASD cases throughout his decades-long career.

“Alcohol can lead to physical abnormalities, small brains, small body size, facial abnormalites where there are defects in the structure of the eyes, defects in the way the lips are structured. More concerning they lead to cognitive and behavorial disabilities,” says Gianopoulous of the effects of alcohol during pregnancy.

A Sobering Wake-Up Call

After more than three months in NICU, Heather says her daughter was finally able to go home. “With the help of the medical doctors, the nurses and God. Not by me,” says Heather.

Heather’s daughter is now 10-years-old. She has developmental delays and is legally disabled.

Heather eventually got help too and is now on the road to recovery. She says she is sober with the help of the Council on Recovery (formally known as Austin Recovery).

Getting help is key as the UT study on pregnant teens and substance abuse suggests.

“We looked at pregnant teens and we tried to see if we could predict who was using or was not using. One things that did predict it was consistent parental support and positive school engagement,” says Dr. Salas-Wright. Researchers found the odds of substance abuse were roughly 50 percent lower among pregnant teens who reported positive parental support.

Ten years later, it’s a message Heather hopes rings loud and clear for young girls who are in the same situation she was in. “If you are a teenager and you are drinking. Please stop and if you can’t stop, please get help.”

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