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Clinical Updates


UCLA offers programs for toddlers and teens with prenatal alcohol exposure


CU-Prenatal Alcohol ExposurePrenatal alcohol exposure can have devastating consequences for an individual’s physical and mental development. Children whose mothers drank alcohol during pregnancy can suffer a range of effects, from learning disabilities to physical birth defects and permanent brain damage. The continuum of conditions caused by prenatal alcohol exposure includes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), which is characterized by distinctive facial features and permanent damage to the central nervous system and brain, and Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND), a diagnosis for alcohol-exposed children who have no physical birth defects but suffer from cognitive problems such as developmental delays, intellectual deficits, poor memory and attention deficits, as well as impulsive behavior and predispositions to mental health problems and alcohol and other drug misuse. The most recent studies suggest that FAS affects two to seven children in 1,000, while ARND is believed to be about five times more common than autism, affecting up to 50 children per 1,000.

UCLA has two research programs that are designed to help children with prenatal exposure to alcohol: Strategies for Enhancing Early Developmental Success (SEEDS), which targets infants and toddlers, and Project Step Up, which focuses on teenagers. The two programs seek to improve the outcomes of alcohol-exposed individuals, who, as adolescents, are twice as likely to misuse or abuse alcohol as those who were not exposed prenatally to alcohol. Both programs offer educational components to children and their parents or caregivers and are free to participating families.

SEEDS, which is operated through a grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, provides parent education, attachment-based parent training and a parent-child play group to foster positive interactions between alcohol-exposed children and their caregivers. Currently, the program is open to children ages 1 month to 24 months with known or suspected prenatal alcohol exposure and their foster parents, adoptive parents or relative caretakers. Families who enroll in the program can earn up to $225, as well as credit for foster parent training. Dinner and parking are provided free of charge at UCLA.

Project Step Up aims to prevent or reduce alcohol misuse in teens ages 13 to 18 years who had prenatal exposure to alcohol. The six-week program, which is funded by the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, includes separate one-hour group meetings for teens and their parents. It uses proven strategies — such as motivational interviewing techniques — to help teens resist alcohol. Participating teens are compensated for their time with gift cards of up to $60. Free pizza dinners are provided for both teens and their parents at each session.

Using behavioral interventions

Pregnant women who consume alcohol put their offspring at risk for a range of physical, cognitive, learning and behavioral abnormalities. Although binge drinking — defined as four-drinks in a two-hour period — is particularly dangerous for developing fetuses, research shows that lower levels of drinking can cause significant damage, too.

“Different women are affected differently by alcohol depending on their age, body mass index and weight,” says Mary O’Connor, Ph.D., ABPP, an adjunct professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “Because there is no way to predict a safe amount of alcohol for one person, the consensus among healthcare professionals and organizations is that no amount of alcohol is safe for pregnant women.”

Research shows that children born to mothers who drink alcohol during pregnancy can benefit from interventions aimed at early childhood and the teen years. UCLA is currently enrolling families with children in both age ranges for research programs designed to improve parenting skills, foster positive relationships and prevent or reduce the risk of alcohol misuse among children with prenatal alcohol exposure.

Participating Faculty & Physician

Mary J. O’Connor, Ph.D., ABPP
Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences
Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior
Principal Investigator, Project Step Up

Katrina M. Dipple, M.D., Ph.D.
Associate Professor Departments of Human Genetics and Pediatrics
David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA
Project Geneticist, SEEDS Program and Project Step Up

Blair Paley, Ph.D.
Clinical Professor Semel Institute for Neuroscience
and Human Behavior
Principal Investigator, SEEDS Program

Contact Information
SEEDS Program
(310) 206-5254
Project Step Up
(310) 825-8738

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