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Dangers of Substance Abuse During Pregnancy – Design For Recovery

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Table of Contents

Effects of Substance Abuse During Pregnancy

When you find out you’re pregnant, your whole life changes. Your unborn child will be with you for the rest of your life, so it’s important to understand how your habits could impact their health. Pregnancy is an exciting and demanding time. For many women, it also marks a period of rapid change in terms of lifestyle and habits. Smoking, alcohol consumption and drug use are not recommended during pregnancy as they can have a negative impact on both mother and child.

With proper care and support, most women are able to have happy, healthy pregnancies. However, as these habits can pose potential risks to both mom and baby, professional support is recommended. This article will help you understand the effects of substance abuse on pregnancy so that you can take precautions if necessary.

Alcohol Abuse During Pregnancy

Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance during pregnancy. Unfortunately, many women don’t realize they’re pregnant until they’ve already developed a drinking habit. During pregnancy, alcohol can negatively impact your baby in a number of ways. It can increase the risk of premature birth, miscarriage, stillbirth and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). FASD refers to a range of disorders caused by alcohol exposure in utero, including:

  • Physical defects
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Increased risk of mental illness
  • Hyperactivity and impulsivity
  • Poor social skills and trouble with relationships
  • Learning difficulties
  • Poor coordination
  • Learning disabilities
  • Trouble with attention span and focus
  • Trouble with mathematics
  • Trouble with reading and writing
  • Trouble with understanding time, numbers and language
  • Trouble with understanding emotions and social cues
Additionally, because the baby’s liver has not yet developed the ability to process alcohol, drinking can cause it to become dangerously intoxicated in utero — and it can even die of alcohol poisoning.

Smoking Cigarettes During Pregnancy

While many people have become aware of the dangers of smoking tobacco in general, many are unaware that it’s especially dangerous during pregnancy. During pregnancy, smoking cigarettes can cause a number of negative effects on your unborn child, and yourself. These include:

  • Early birth
  • Miscarriage
  • Poor growth
  • Lower birth weight
  • Adult health problems
  • Increased risk of stillbirth
  • Lung and heart disease for the mother
This list only covers the most common effects. If you’re pregnant and you smoke cigarettes, it’s important to speak with a doctor. They can advise you on how to quit and how to minimize the risks to your unborn child as much as possible.

Drug Abuse During Pregnancy

“Drug abuse” is an umbrella term that covers a number of substances, including illicit drugs like heroin and cocaine, and prescription drugs like opioids and benzodiazepines. Because the effects of drug abuse on pregnancy vary widely depending on the substance, it’s important to be aware of the potential risks to both you and your unborn child. For example, while alcohol has one negative side effect on pregnancy, drug use can have a number of potential effects on your unborn baby.

Most drugs are secreted in your bloodstream, so they go straight to your unborn child while they’re in the womb. This means that if you use illegal drugs during pregnancy, your child is likely to be exposed to them as well. While there is some debate about the specific effects of different drugs on the unborn child, there is no doubt that harmful substances can cause serious problems in babies.

Can Babies Be Born with Addictions?

During pregnancy, your unborn child relies on you for their health and well-being. One of their first lessons, then, is to rely on you for their survival. While the effects of drugs and alcohol on newborns can vary, what we do know is that many babies are born addicted. This can happen if you have been abusing substances since before you became pregnant.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

Neonatal abstinence syndrome occurs when babies experience withdrawal symptoms after being exposed to addictive substances while in the womb. Babies with NAS have trouble feeding, have low birth weights and are more likely to experience health complications, developmental delays and disabilities. In 2018, around 50,000 babies were diagnosed with NAS in the U.S.

What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is an example of a substance-related disorder that can affect a baby’s development. When a child is exposed to alcohol during pregnancy, they experience a wide range of symptoms and problems as a result. This is called fetal alcohol syndrome.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is caused by maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Research suggests that drinking even small amounts of alcohol during pregnancy can cause lifelong harm to the fetus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that as many as 0.3 out of every 1000 children are born each year with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS).

FAS is one of the leading preventable causes of mental disability in the U.S. Even light or moderate alcohol use during pregnancy can be harmful. The level of risk depends on how often you drink and the amount you consume during each alcohol-using episode. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid alcohol entirely since no level of alcohol use has been proven safe for the baby.

Quitting Drugs and Alcohol During Pregnancy

If you’re pregnant, now is the time to get rid of your drugs and alcohol. Pregnancy can be a time of change, and if you have been abusing drugs or alcohol, it is the perfect time to quit. If you need help quitting, there are different methods that can help you succeed. Pregnant women who have addictions or have a history of substance abuse may need extra support to quit, however. With the right support, you can be successful in quitting drugs and alcohol even if you have had difficulties in the past. It may be helpful to seek treatment at a drug treatment center or an alcohol treatment center. Call your insurance provider to see if they cover any treatment costs.

Can Drug Abuse Lead to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome?

Drug use during pregnancy can lead to complications during childbirth, including placental abruption and fetal distress, which can result in sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). SIDS is the unexpected, unexplained death of a child less than one-year-old. If you are pregnant and abusing drugs, your baby has an increased chance of dying due to complications with the pregnancy or delivery. Babies who survive may have low birth weights, breathing problems and health issues as they grow older.

How Do Withdrawal Symptoms Affect Pregnancy?

If you are pregnant and addicted to drugs, you may experience withdrawal symptoms after you stop using. The most common withdrawal symptoms are nausea, vomiting, sweating and headaches, but more severe symptoms like seizures can occur in rare cases. Trying to stop abusing drugs while pregnant is a very challenging undertaking and requires professional help. Women who are pregnant should not stop taking prescribed medications without consulting their doctors first. 

Over-the-Counter Medications During Pregnancy

Over-the-counter medications are often used during pregnancy, but many of these products have not been studied thoroughly in pregnant women and therefore their safety is unknown. Always check the ingredients to ensure that they are safe for use during pregnancy. While it is unlikely that these medications will cause significant harm, there is always a slight risk of adverse effects. In case of doubt concerning the safety of any medication during pregnancy, it is best to consult a physician.

Prenatal Marijuana Exposure

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the effects of cannabis on a fetus. Although research shows that cannabis can pass from the mother’s bloodstream through the placenta and into the fetus’ bloodstream, there is no evidence that the THC in cannabis has harmful effects on the fetus. However, marijuana use during pregnancy has the potential to affect the fetus’ developing brain because THC is a neurotoxin, meaning that it can negatively impact the normal growth and development of the nervous system. In general, prenatal cannabis use is unlikely to cause significant health problems in the infant, but it may increase the risk of mental health problems down the road.

Legal Issues from Substance Abuse during Pregnancy

Depending on the type of substance abused, pregnant women who engage in substance abuse may be charged with child endangerment.

  • Drinking Alcohol: While some research suggests that light alcohol consumption during pregnancy may not be harmful to the fetus, others suggest that even one drink per day can have a negative impact on development. Most doctors would argue that any alcohol use is likely to cause birth defects or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
  • Marijuana: Doctors strongly advise against smoking marijuana during pregnancy due to findings that suggest it can negatively affect fetal growth and development, especially when combined with tobacco.
  • Cocaine: Studies show that even a single use of cocaine during pregnancy has the potential to cause fetal death.
  • Heroin: Studies show that heroin use during pregnancy can cause miscarriage, low birth weight, stillbirth, premature birth and infant death.
  • Prescription drugs: The use of prescription drugs is often considered a medical issue, not a legal one.
Fetal homicide laws: Some states have fetal homicide laws, which make it a crime to harm a fetus. These laws vary in severity and are usually reserved for extreme cases of neglect or abuse.

How is Addiction During Pregnancy Treated

Abstinence is the preferred method of treatment during pregnancy, but very few women are able to quit cold turkey. The health and well-being of the baby are the top priority, so the mother is recommended to seek professional help with a counselor or doctor who specializes in prenatal care. Depending on the severity of dependency, women may be prescribed medication to help with withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

  • Maternal health concerns: It’s important for expecting mothers to have regular prenatal care with a midwife or doctor to closely monitor their health and the baby’s development.
  • Fetal health concerns: Fetal health can also be monitored with ultrasound and tests such as amniocentesis.
  • Inpatient or outpatient treatment: Inpatient treatment is recommended for pregnant women who are experiencing severe or chronic symptoms.
  • Medication: Some women may be prescribed medication to help manage withdrawal symptoms or cravings.

How Can Family Members Help?

Addiction is a disease that requires treatment. Family members can provide support by encouraging the pregnant woman to seek help.

  • Express concern: Let the pregnant woman know that you’re concerned about her health and the baby’s health.
  • Offer support: Offer your support and assistance to help her find treatment.
  • Be understanding: Be patient and understanding while she gets the treatment she needs.
  • Be prepared to leave the house: If the pregnant woman refuses treatment or is unable to care for herself or the baby, it’s best to leave the house and seek professional help.
  • Be prepared to get outside help: If the pregnant woman is a danger to herself or to her unborn child, it’s important to get outside help.
  • Be prepared to seek legal assistance: If the pregnant woman uses illegal drugs and is a threat to her unborn baby, it’s important to seek legal assistance.

Sober Livings for Pregnant Women

Sober livings are transitional housing programs specifically designed for pregnant and postpartum women who are trying to recover from drug or alcohol addiction. Sober livings provide pregnant women with a safe environment where they can receive medical care, psychological care and other necessary services while they work toward achieving sobriety and reconnecting with their families.

Rehabs for Pregnant Women

The health and well-being of both the mother and baby are the most important factors during pregnancy. While some women are able to continue their normal lives while expecting, it’s important to understand the effects of substance abuse on pregnancy so that you can take precautions if necessary. In most cases, women are recommended to abstain from certain habits, such as alcohol and drugs, but for those who are unable to quit, professional help is recommended.

Outpatient rehabs can help pregnant women avoid birth defects and any risks to their own lives by getting them off of both prescription drugs and illicit drugs. Pregnant women seeking substance addiction treatment during pregnancy are in luck, because addiction medicine recognizes that mothers who get help for their substance use habits are good mothers. There is no reason to fear repercussions. By admitting a problem and getting help, you are not only doing the best thing for yourself but for your unborn child as well. With the right precautions, you and your unborn child can be safe and healthy. If you are struggling with either prescription or illicit drug use, reach out today and choose from a variety of different treatment programs.


Edited by: David Beasley

David Beasley - Design for Recovery

David Beasley is a certified RADT (Registered Alcohol/Drug Technician). David, moved to California from North Carolina after many failed attempts to get sober.

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Charley earned his Masters of Clinical Psychology from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).He teaches mindfulness to both adults and children in group setting such as schools, corporate workplaces, and medical treatment facilities.

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