Adrienne Foran described foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) as the “elephant in the room”, because Irish people were uncomfortable tackling alcohol abuse.
FAS refers to a number of birth defects caused by a mother’s alcohol abuse during pregnancy.
The level of alcohol that causes FAS is unknown, although binge drinking is particularly harmful.
Dr Foran, a consultant neonatologist, said there was no data on the number of babies exposed to alcohol during pregnancy.
However, a baby’s first bowel movement can reveal if their mother drank alcohol during pregnancy and if the child will suffer intelligence problems in later life.
Dr Foran said the Health Research Board had been asked to support a project so newborn babies could be tested anonymously.
The consultant, who is based at the Rotunda Maternity Hospital and Temple Street University Children’s Hospital, in Dublin, said it was likely that more babies were at risk of FAS.
“We might see one or two cases a year, where it is quite clearly full-blown FAS, but the mother would be an identified alcoholic,” she said.
Children affected by their mother’s drinking may not be identified until they are aged two or three, or at school age, when behavioural and learning difficulties become problematic.
“If we don’t know how widespread the problem is, we don’t know how to deal with it,” said Dr Foran.
It has become more socially acceptable for women to drink alcohol and Dr Foran said more younger women were drinking more.
“It was socially unacceptable for my grandmother to sit in a pub 40 years ago, but it is the norm now for women as young as 13 or 14 to drink heavily,” she said.
Dr Foran also told the committee that most of the drug-addicted mothers seen at the Rotunda over the last five to 10 years were poly-drug users.
One of the biggest challenges for doctors was when a mother was taking tranquilisers such as benzodiazepines.
“The half-life of those drugs is much longer and the baby may not show show drug-withdrawal symptoms for two to three weeks,” said Dr Foran.
The consultant said 106 opiate-dependent pregnant women attended the Rotunda last year and 68 of their babies were delivered.
She said close to half of the babies would be admitted to hospital, but not always for neonatal abstinence syndrome.
Some of the babies would have been born prematurely, while some would have blood/sugar problems.
However, about a third, and sometimes more, would have full-blown neonatal abstinence syndrome.
“Ideally, these babies, once identified, should be nursed in a dark, quiet room, with dimmed light and swaddling,” said Dr Foran. “But that is not possible in the Rotunda in 2015. We don’t have the space.”