The Effects of Drug Use During Pregnancy

substance abuse during pregnancy

Did you know that marijuana use during pregnancy more than doubles the likelihood of a stillbirth? Or that cocaine can linger in a newborn baby's system up to seven days after birth, solely due to an expectant mother's use? This is just the beginning of the many adverse effects of using drugs during pregnancy.

Research has shown that the consumption of drugs during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, low birth weight, premature labor, placental abruption, neonatal abstinence syndrome, fetal death, and even maternal death (in the case a drug overdose occurs).

You’ve likely heard the saying, “You are what you eat” before. Well, this same concept can be applied to pregnant women, except their babies are the ones being affected by what is consumed. Everything an expectant mother eats, drinks, or takes gets passed to her baby in some way. Hard drugs and alcohol are no exception. These substances can pass through a mother’s bloodstream, cross the placenta, and reach her growing baby. If breastfeeding, these substances can also pass to a woman’s baby through breastmilk.

If you or someone you love is pregnant and taking – or has a history of taking – drugs, it is important to seek help from a medical or addiction professional immediately. Drug abuse at the beginning of pregnancy (say, if a woman did not know she was pregnant) can be just as harmful to a baby as substance use in the second or third trimesters. Regular prescription drug use during pregnancy can be equally as harmful as maternal cocaine use.

Let’s take a closer look at the potential effects of substance abuse during pregnancy. Drugs can cause:

  • Disrupted functioning of the placenta – The placenta is what supplies unborn babies with the food and oxygen they need to grow.
  • Miscarriage and stillbirth – If babies cannot get the nutrients and oxygen they need, they are not able to survive in the womb.
  • Low birthweight – Without proper nutrients, babies are not able to grow fully in the fetus. This can cause low birthweights in drug-affected babies (less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces).
  • Early or premature birth – Premature labor due to drug use can occur more than three weeks before expected delivery.
  • Birth defects – Drug use during pregnancy can cause health conditions upon a baby’s birth. This is because drugs can disrupt babies’ overall health, how their bodies develop, and how their bodies work. Heart defects are common in drug-affected babies.
  • Infections such as hepatitis C and HIV – If an expectant mother uses drugs intravenously during her pregnancy, or has contracted bloodborne diseases like HIV, she runs the risk of passing an infection to her baby during pregnancy or at birth.
  • Neonatal abstinence syndrome – NAS is a withdrawal period that happens when a baby is exposed and gets addicted to drugs in the womb. While NAS symptoms can be caused from an array of addictive substances, it is most commonly caused by opiate use (both legal and illegal use).

Specific drugs can also provoke different adversities in pregnant women and their babies:

  • Heroin and other opiate drugs (such as prescription painkillers) can cause NAS: addiction in babies and severe withdrawal symptoms that can last up to six months after birth. Opiate addiction during pregnancy also poses a higher risk of premature birth, low birth weight, breathing difficulties, hypoglycemia, and bleeding of the brain.
  • Amphetamines use during pregnancy can cause extreme heart rate elevations for both mother and baby. Use of these drugs can also increase the chance of premature birth and low birth weight.
  • Cocaine use during pregnancy poses severe issues for affected babies both short and long-term. Cocaine lingers in a fetus much longer than an adult and often 5-7 days after birth. Babies exposed to cocaine in the womb have a 25 percent increased chance of being born premature. As they grow, prenatally exposed children are more likely to have poor growth, developmental delay, and learning disabilities.
  • Marijuana use during pregnancy has not only been linked to low birth rates, but also to future developmental disorders in children. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana has the potential to negatively impact the developing brain of a child.

Treating an addiction to drugs can be complicated, especially if you are carrying a child. If you or your loved one is addicted to drugs and pregnant, take note that she should not stop on her own. Doing so can actually harm both her and her baby.

Remember, addiction is a disease of the brain. It is a disease that chemically alters the way our minds and bodies work – it manipulates our brains to crave drugs, to take drugs for pleasure, and to continue to use them despite adverse consequences. Drug addiction is not something that can be quit overnight.

Professional management of drug addiction is the key to protecting the health and well-being of addicted pregnant women and their children long-term. If you would like to learn about our drug rehab for women, please call Turnbridge at 877-581-1793.