Around one in every 700 babies is born with Down Syndrome (DS) worldwide and this is the most common cause of mental disability in children.
Most people have 23 pairs of chromosomes (strings of genetic material) in each cell, making a total 46.
DS is a genetic disorder that occurs when each of the body’s cells contains an extra copy of chromosome (21) making a total of 47.
Most DS occurs by chance, although in about four per cent of cases, the extra chromosome is stuck to one of the normal 46 and it’s this type that can be hereditary.
Children with DS share some facial characteristics especially a slight upward tilt to the eyes, and a rounded face with flattish profile but they also resemble their own families like any other child.
Developmentally, children with DS are behind other children both mentally and physically. They will reach milestones such as walking and talking but a few months later than normal, and their IQ will always be below the average for their age.
The chance of having a child with DS increases with maternal age, and screening is now available to women who can afford. Around two thirds of cases of DS are picked up by antenatal tests, but a third of cases aren’t usually discovered until birth.
Not all the tests give definite answers. If you are offered a test it’s important to consider the implications of a positive result before deciding to go ahead with the test.
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Various medical conditions are associated with DS such as frequent colds and glue ear, short or long-sightedness and squints.
Around a third of children with DS have some heart abnormality, usually ‘holes in the heart’ although these are not always serious enough to require surgery. Around 10 per cent have an intestinal blockage, which require surgery. Thyroid problems can also occur, and the risk of leukaemia is slightly raised. All these are treatable, often curable conditions.
Babies with Down syndrome are usually floppy with poor muscle tone although this usually improves with time. Muscle control is poor initially while coordination and speech may come more slowly than usual.
All children develop at their own pace and those with DS are no different, though in general they will be behind for their age. Because of their learning difficulties, they are unlikely to become fully independent adults, but they will still make friends and enjoy a range of activities.
On the positive side, watching Ds children develop is just as exciting as it is with other children. They enjoy a range of activities like anyone else, and have a great deal to give. As adults they may be semi-independent, and can lead happy and fulfilling lives.
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