Years of research have shown that the use of substances, including tobacco, alcohol, illicit drugs, or the misuse of prescribed medications by pregnant women can have severe adverse impacts on infants. The reason for these impacts is that so many of these substances pass through the placenta. Therefore, when a pregnant woman does drugs during her pregnancy, consequences are passed on to her unborn child. Current studies also indicate that smoking tobacco or marijuana, taking prescription pain medications, or using illegal drugs during pregnancy can double or triple the risk of stillbirth. Also, regular use of some drugs can cause neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) in which the baby experiences withdrawal symptoms upon birth. The type and severity of these symptoms depend on the drug used, how long and how often it was used, and whether the infant was born full-term or prematurely.
Despite the knowledge that maternal drug use and substance abuse during pregnancy can have adverse impacts on the unborn child, it continues to be a concern throughout the United States and globally. Not all drugs impact the pregnancy in the same way. Below we have explored the impact of specific substances on the unborn child when a pregnant woman does drugs during her pregnancy.
Marijuana (Cannabis, Pot, Weed)
Given the changing policies and laws related to marijuana, there has been a significant increase in the number of pregnant women seeking treatment for substance use disorders pertaining to marijuana. A paper published by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology in 2017 suggested the use of marijuana during pregnancy affects fetal growth. The severity of these effects is related to the frequency of use and use during the first and second trimester tend to have a more significant impact.
To date, no human research has been done to determine if there is a connection between marijuana use and the chance of miscarriage. However, animal studies do indicate that the risk for miscarriage increases if marijuana is used early in the pregnancy. Also, some research has shown links between marijuana use during pregnancy and future developmental and hyperactivity disorders in children.
Research has been done on the human population regarding babies born to women who used marijuana during pregnancy. In many cases, their infants exhibited altered responses to visual stimuli, increased trembling, and a high-pitched cry. It is believed that all of the above can indicate problems with neurological development while in the womb.
Stimulants (Cocaine and Methamphetamine)
The effects of cocaine use on an unborn child are not well known. This is thought to be because women who use cocaine are also more likely to use other drugs such as alcohol, have poor nutrition, and not seek prenatal care. All of these factors combined can affect the health of the developing fetus and make it difficult to isolate the effects specifically related to cocaine use. Research does show, however, that a pregnant woman who uses cocaine is at a higher risk for seizures, maternal migraines, premature membrane rupture, and placental abruption (which is the separation of the placenta from the uterus). A healthy pregnancy is typically accompanied by cardiovascular changes, which usually do not significantly impact the mother or the developing baby. However, cocaine use intensifies these changes, which can sometimes lead to difficulties with high blood pressure, spontaneous miscarriage, preterm labor, and difficult delivery. Infants born to a mom who does drugs during her pregnancy, specifically cocaine, may also show low birth weight and smaller head circumference. These infants may be shorter in length and show symptoms of irritability, tremors, hyperactivity, and excessive sucking at birth. These effects are likely due to the use of cocaine itself, rather than withdrawal from the drug as cocaine remains present in the baby’s body up to seven days after delivery.
A pregnant woman who does drugs such as methamphetamines has a higher risk of preeclampsia, premature delivery, and placental abruption when compared to a woman who does not do drugs during her pregnancy. Also, their babies are more likely to be born smaller in with low birth weight. Methamphetamine use during pregnancy has also been shown to have an adverse effect on the infant’s neurological development. Infants exposed to methamphetamine are shown to have increased emotional reactivity and anxiety or depression, were more withdrawn, had difficulties with attention, and displayed cognitive challenges, which could lead to adverse academic outcomes.
MDMA (Ecstasy, Molly)
Unfortunately, little research has been done on the effects of MDMA use during pregnancy. The limited research that does exist suggests that prenatal use may lead to learning, memory, and motor problems in the infant.
When a woman does drugs during her pregnancy, it can be dangerous for the unborn child. The effects of heroin use are particularly so as they can result in neonatal abstinence syndrome. Neonatal abstinence syndrome or NAS is specifically associated with opioid (prescription or otherwise) use. NAS occurs when heroin passes through the placenta to the fetus during pregnancy, which causes the baby to become dependent on opioids. Symptoms of NAS include excessive crying, irritability, seizures, high-pitched cry, gastrointestinal problems, and others. Weaning babies who are born addicted to opioids takes time and requires hospitalization, typically for up to a month. Morphine and Opioid Maintenance Therapy are two drugs commonly used to help alleviate withdrawal symptoms in newborns born with NAS.
Prescription Medications and Over the Counter (OTC) Drugs
It is often thought that a woman who does drugs during pregnancy uses only illegal substances but, substances such as alcohol, tobacco, prescription, and over-the-counter drugs may also affect the fetus’s development. Unfortunately, research into these subjects is difficult because it is highly unethical for researchers to give potentially dangerous drugs to pregnant women. However, below are some of the known facts about common medications in pregnancy.
Each year in the United States, approximately 6 million pregnancies occur. Of those, about nine in ten pregnant women take medications of some form. To protect unborn children, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued rules related to drug labeling to ensure pharmaceutical companies provide more explicit instructions for a pregnant woman or one that is nursing. Still, little is known about the effects of most medications during pregnancy. Despite FDA labeling requirements, fewer than ten percent of prescriptions have enough information to determine fetal risk accurately. This is because pregnant women are rarely included in studies conducted to assess the safety of new medications. While some medications are generally considered safe to use during pregnancy, it is essential for a pregnant woman or one planning to get pregnant to consult with her health care provider before starting or stopping any medications.
As previously noted, there is a common misconception that someone who does drugs specifically uses illegal substances. Contrary to popular opinion, common everyday substances such as alcohol and tobacco classify as drugs and can harm the development of an unborn child.
Over time there has been a significant amount of research into the effects of alcohol use while pregnant. Alcohol use for a pregnant woman can result in Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, an umbrella term that includes illnesses such as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, alcohol-related disorders of brain development, and alcohol-related birth defects. These effects, which are often present at birth, can last throughout life, causing difficulties with motor coordination, emotional control, academic ability, socialization, employment, and much more.
Fetal alcohol exposure occurs when a pregnant woman consumes alcohol during her pregnancy. Alcohol consumption at any stage during the pregnancy can disrupt fetal development. This includes even the earliest stages before a woman even knows she’s pregnant.
Nicotine (Tobacco Products and e-Cigarettes)
Statistics show that nearly ten percent of pregnant women in the United States have smoked cigarettes in the past month. Carbon monoxide and nicotine ingested from tobacco smoke have been shown to interfere with the fetus’s oxygen supplies. Like other drugs, nicotine can also readily cross the placental barrier, resulting in concentrations in the fetus’s blood as much as fifteen percent higher than that of the mother. Also, smoking during pregnancy increases the risk for certain birth defects, premature birth, miscarriage, and low birthweight. Smoking during pregnancy is estimated to have caused more than one thousand infant deaths in any given year.
Some studies have shown newborns born of a pregnant woman who smoked during pregnancy show signs of stress and drug withdrawal consistent with that reported in infants exposed to other drugs. In some cases, smoking during pregnancy may also be associated with sudden infant death syndrome, as well as learning difficulties, behavioral problems, and an increased risk of obesity in children.
The symptoms of withdrawal in a newborn Can result from any number of different drugs. Withdrawal symptoms are not limited to illegal substances and can occur up to fourteen days after birth. When a mother does drugs during her pregnancy, some of the symptoms her newborn may experience can include:
- Blotchy skin colorings
- Excessive or high-pitched crying
- Abnormal sucking reflex and poor feeding
- Hyperactive reflexes
- Rapid breathing
- Slow weight gain
- Sleep disturbances
As you can see, withdrawal symptoms in an infant can mimic those often seen in adults going through detox. Like adult detox and withdrawal, the effects of some drugs during pregnancy can be long-term and even fatal to the infant. These effects include:
- Birth defects
- Low birth weight
- Small head circumference
- Premature birth
- Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
When a woman does drugs during her pregnancy, it can put her unborn baby at significant risk. Unfortunately, many people do not realize that substances considered acceptable or common, such as over-the-counter cold medicine or an occasional glass of wine, can put the baby at increased risk. If a woman does drugs regularly and becomes pregnant, it is essential to seek treatment at a residential care facility such as The Hills in Los Angeles.
At a drug treatment facility like The Hills, she can detox safely and under the care and supervision of a trained team of medical professionals who can ensure the health and well-being of both her and her unborn child. Pregnant or otherwise, it is not safe to detox from some substances on your own as dangerous withdrawal-related symptoms can occur. If you or someone you know has a substance abuse problem or addiction to drugs and is pregnant, don’t wait to seek treatment. The health of you and your unborn baby could depend on it.