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how drugs and alcohol affect pregnancy
December 28, 2017

Prenatal Effects of Drug and Alcohol Abuse

how drugs and alcohol affect pregnancy Drug abuse and pregnancy don’t mix. Period.

An unborn child is at the mercy of its mother’s decisions. If a pregnant woman sees her doctor regularly, puts the right substances into her body and otherwise takes care of her own health, the odds are in favor of her baby’s being born healthy and strong. But if the mother suffers a violent injury, the pregnancy may miscarry. If the mother is exposed to harmful germs (even in forms too weak to cause symptoms in adults), the fetus may not develop properly, or may die. If the mother is under chronic stress, the baby’s health may be at risk from premature delivery, low birth weight or future developmental issues. Even consuming excessive amounts of coffee or salty foods may increase dangers of miscarriage or of the child having mental/emotional problems.

And, of course, consuming harmful chemical substances during pregnancy presents all sorts of dangers to the unborn baby as well as the mother. This article looks at two well-known prenatal effects of drug abuse—Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and babies born addicted—as well as other lesser-known effects.


Alcohol in a pregnant woman’s bloodstream (and, via placenta, the fetus’s) makes it difficult for the fetus to receive enough oxygen, interfering with proper prenatal development. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) was first diagnosed as a disorder in 1973, and has become one of the most infamous causes of birth defects. Actually, there are other fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) that present various physical and mental health issues: FAS is simply the extreme end of the spectrum. Common symptoms include:

  • A head that looks too small for the body
  • Eyes, nose and/or upper lip that look too small for the face
  • Lack of a philtrum (groove between the nose and upper lip)
  • Deformed limbs or hands
  • Vision or hearing difficulties
  • Slow physical growth
  • Poor physical coordination
  • Hyperactivity
  • Low intelligence
  • Difficulty communicating with others, controlling emotions or making rational decisions
  • Heart or kidney problems

While proper care can mitigate some behavioral and intellectual difficulties, the majority of damage cannot be undone. People with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome have an average life expectancy of less than 40 years.

Even “normal” drinking by a non-addicted mother presents risks of FAS, especially during the first trimester of pregnancy. When the mother drinks at alcoholic levels, risk becomes all the greater.


It doesn’t get as much publicity as FAS, but being born to a mother with alcohol addiction probably means that the baby will have caught the physical addiction as well, and will suffer withdrawal symptoms. With many other substances, Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome—the condition of being born addicted—is frequently in the public eye.

NAS has long been associated with street heroin. These days, however, the instigator drug may well be one of heroin’s “respectable” cousins, prescription opiates. Since the early 21st century, “born-addicted” cases have multiplied fourfold in the United States—roughly in parallel with today’s prescription-fueled “opioid epidemic,” and to the point where lawsuits are now being filed against opioid manufacturers.

A baby with NAS will typically exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Hysterical, high-pitched crying
  • Muscle spasms or seizures
  • Inability to sleep
  • Difficulty nursing
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Heavy perspiration
  • Fever
  • Constant sniffling or sneezing

Depending on the addictive substance involved and the baby’s overall physical condition, symptoms may manifest as soon as 24 hours or as long as 10 days after birth.

In this situation at least, premature birth is an advantage: babies born close to term tend to have more severe withdrawal symptoms and take longer to recover. (This phenomenon has also been observed in cases of prenatal benzodiazepine exposure.) Treatment for NAS—which can take over a month—involves:

  • Keeping infants comfortable, with extra swaddling and attention
  • A high-calorie diet to replace calories burned through fever and hyperactivity
  • Intravenous fluids to treat dehydration from vomiting/diarrhea
  • Medication as needed
  • Carefully weaning the baby off the addictive drug

Unfortunately, the child’s problems may not be over when the worst symptoms are. Although “lasting” and “incurable” problems are not as obvious as with FAS, there’s some evidence that children born with NAS suffer lasting intellectual-development problems. A recent Australian study found these children noticeably behind their peers in educational achievement—and the problem only got worse as the youngsters aged out of elementary school into middle school.


In the 1980s, “crack” cocaine was also blamed for severe withdrawal symptoms in newborns—and for leaving babies severely and permanently brain-damaged. Later, a closer look at the evidence (and at the actual growing-up development of “crack babies”) indicated that the worst physical problems, including many alleged “withdrawal tremors,” were due to a real but not quite as horrifying cocaine-related danger: premature births. Cocaine is not only associated with this and other pregnancy difficulties, it can place the baby at genuine risk for developmental delays. Possible short- and long-term manifestations include:

  • Low birth weight
  • Smaller head circumference at birth
  • Physical clumsiness
  • Language difficulties
  • Poor memory
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Low responsiveness to stimuli
  • Irritability
  • Hyperactivity


When it comes down to it, no mood-altering substance is safe to put into the pregnant body—and, by extension, the unborn baby—without medical direction. One of the most common complications is lower birth weight (often combined with a greater risk of miscarriage or premature birth), which is known to be common with prenatal use of:

  • Amphetamines
  • Marijuana
  • And even “ordinary” nicotine.

If you’re a woman struggling with addiction to any drug, and there’s even a tiny chance you might be or become pregnant, get help now for your future babies’ sake. Yes, detox (like childbirth) can be an unpleasant experience, and long-term recovery takes a lot of work and responsibility (as does parenting). But—just as with parenting—few people who accept the challenge regret it.


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