Women who give birth to children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) are at an increased risk of attempting suicide and dying by suicide, a University of Manitoba study has found.

FASD is a brain development disorder that can occur if a baby is exposed to alcohol in the womb. It can have lifelong effects on the child, including physical, mental, behavioural and learning disabilities.

“We found that social and health challenges faced by mothers of children with FASD place them at increased risk for suicide,” said the study’s lead author Deepa Singal, a PhD candidate in community health sciences at the U of M’s Max Rady College of Medicine, in a statement.

The study, published in CMAJ Open, looked at the anonymous health data over a 34-year period from Manitoba’s Centre for Health Policy. The researchers compared 700 mothers who had children diagnosed with FASD to 2,100 mothers whose children didn’t have FASD.

They found that mothers of children with FASD had higher rates of suicide attempts and deaths;

During the study period, 101 women died, of whom more than 70 per cent were in the FASD group. The most common cause of death in the FASD group intentional was self-poisoning or self-harm.

The study also found that there wasn’t an increase in risk during pregnancy or the first year after the baby is born.

The average time between the birth of the child and suicide was about 12 years, according to the study.

The study also found the mothers had higher rates of poverty, single parenthood, mental disorders and alcohol use.

“Pregnant women don’t drink to intentionally harm the unborn baby. They likely consume alcohol to cope with stressful life circumstances and addiction, or they may not realize they are pregnant,” Singal said in a statement.

Singal said the study highlights the need for mental health support for women who drink during pregnancy and for women whose children are diagnosed with FASD.

"Identifying groups of women who are at risk for suicidal behaviour is crucial for developing effective suicide-prevention strategies," she said.