Pregnancy & Substance Abuse

Pregnancy & Substance Abuse

It is a well known fact that pregnancy & substance abuse, whether drugs or alcohol, is not a winning combination. When a woman becomes pregnant, it is vital to her baby’s health that she lead a healthy life. This includes eating plenty of nourishing food, getting plenty of rest, and exercising regularly.


For a pregnant woman, pregnancy substance abuse is twice as dangerous. First, drugs may harm her own health which interferes with her ability to support the pregnancy. Second, some drugs can directly impair prenatal development. During pregnancy, virtually all illegal drugs pose a danger. Even legal substances, such as alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs are dangerous to expecting women.

Illegal drugs are widespread. As many as 1 in 10 babies may be born to women who use illegal drugs during their pregnancies. These substances can be harmful to the health and growth of your fetus during pregnancy. Drug abuse can affect the baby both before and after birth. Most drugs reach the fetus by crossing the placenta.

If the mother uses drugs after her baby is born, they can be passed to him or her through the breast milk. Since the mid-1980’s, about 1 million babies in this country have been born to mothers who used cocaine during pregnancy, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Did You Know?

Pregnant women who use drugs such as heroin, cocaine, marijuana, PCP, methadone, and/or amphetamines may give birth to drug-addicted babies. Many of these babies experience withdrawal symptoms known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). Symptoms of NAS may include:

  • tremors
  • increased sensitivity to noise or other stimuli
  • feeding problems
  • poor coordination
  • excessive crying and/or irritability

Source: National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI)Pregnancy Substance Abuse

Illegal Drugs

The effects of illegal drugs, such as cocaine, can be devastating on a fetus. Unfortunately, many women of childbearing age in the US use some form of illegal drug. A pregnancy substance abuse mother who is taking illegal drugs increases her risk for anemia, blood and heart infections, skin infections, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases. She also is at greater risk for sexually transmitted diseases.

Almost every drug passes from the mother’s bloodstream through the placenta to the fetus. Illicit substances that cause drug dependence and addiction in the mother also cause the fetus to become addicted. A laboratory test, called a chromatography, performed on a woman’s urine can detect many illegal drugs, including marijuana and cocaine.

Both marijuana and cocaine,as well as other illegal drugs can cross the placenta. Marijuana use during pregnancy may be linked to behavioral problems in the baby. Cocaine use can lead to premature delivery of the fetus, premature detachment of the placenta, high blood pressure and still-birth. Infants born to cocaine-using mothers may have an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

The Effects of Cocaine on the Fetus may include

  • growth defects
  • intestinal abnormalities
  • hyperactivity
  • uncontrollable trembling
  • learning problems

Heroin and other opiates, including methadone, can cause significant withdrawal in the baby, with some symptoms lasting as long as four to six months. Seizures may also occur and are more likely in babies born to methadone users.

If a woman stops taking illegal drugs during her first trimester, she increases her chances of having a healthy baby.


Fetal Alcohol Syndrome [FAS]

When you are pregnant, your baby grows inside you. Everything you eat and drink while you are pregnant affects your baby. If you drink alcohol, it can hurt your baby’s growth. Your baby may have physical and behavioral problems that can last for the rest of his or her life. Children born with the most serious problems caused by alcohol have fetal alcohol syndrome.

Children With [FAS] Fetal Alcohol Syndrome May:

  • Be born small.
  • Have problems eating and sleeping.
  • Have problems seeing and hearing.
  • Have trouble following directions and learning how to do simple things.
  • Have trouble paying attention and learning in school.
  • Need special teachers and schools.
  • Have trouble getting along with others and controlling their behavior.
  • Need medical care all their lives.

Here are some questions you may have:

  1. Can I drink alcohol if I am pregnant?
    No. Do not drink alcohol when you are pregnant. Why? Because when you drink alcohol, so does your baby. Think about it. Everything you drink, your baby also drinks.
  2. Is any kind of alcohol safe to drink during pregnancy?
    No. Drinking any kind of alcohol when you are pregnant can hurt your baby. Alcoholic drinks are beer, wine, wine coolers, liquor, or mixed drinks. A glass of wine, a can of beer, and a mixed drink all have about the same amount of alcohol.
  3. What if I drank during my last pregnancy and my baby was fine?
    Every pregnancy is different. Drinking alcohol may hurt one baby more than another. You could have one child that is born healthy and another child that is born with problems.
  4. Will these problems go away?
    No. These problems will last for a child’s whole life. People with severe problems may not be able to take care of themselves as adults. They may never be able to work.
  5. What if I am pregnant and have been drinking?
    If you drank alcohol before you knew you were pregnant, stop drinking now because that is pregnancy substance abuse. You will feel better, and your baby will have a good chance to be born healthy. If you want to get pregnant, do not drink alcohol. You may not know you are pregnant right away. Alcohol can hurt a baby even when you are only 1 or 2 months pregnant.
  6. How can I stop drinking?
    There are many ways to help you stop drinking. You do not have to drink when other people drink. If someone gives you a drink, it is OK say no. Stay away from people or places that make you drink. Do not keep alcohol at home. If you cannot stop drinking, GET HELP. You may have a disease called alcoholism. There are programs that can help you stop drinking. They are called alcohol treatment programs. Your doctor or nurse can find a program to help you. Even if you have been through a treatment program before, try it again. There are programs just for women with pregnancy substance abuse problems.


Overall, about six million girls and women abuse or are addicted to alcohol, while about 15 million use illicit drugs and/or take prescription drugs for non-medical reasons.

Substance abuse and addiction is by far the number one women’s health problem, causing illness, injury and death and contributing to a whole host of relat social problems.

One reason substance abuse is so serious in women is that women get addicted faster and with smaller amounts of drugs and alcohol than men. Yet astoundingly, America remains in denial about this problem, even though it can be prevented and treated.

The rise in substance abuse is most evident in younger girls, government statistics show. For instance, the percentage of teenaged girls who said they’d used cocaine during their life jumped 2.4 percent between 1991 and 2005, compared to a 1.2 percent increase in boys.


A CASA study found that 10.1 percent of girls aged 12 to 17 abused at least one controlled prescription drug, compared to 8.6 percent of boys. Overall, the study found, teenagers’ abuse of prescription drugs jumped 212 percent between 1992 and 2003.

Abuse of prescription drugs overall is the fastest-growing category of substance abuse in women. Women, particularly Caucasian women, are far more likely to abuse prescription drugs than men or women of other ethnic backgrounds.

Overall, women are 43 percent more likely than men to use narcotic pain relievers for non-medical use. And when women abuse or misuse prescription drugs, they’re often also abusing alcohol or other drugs.

As for alcohol, although women’s drinking patterns have held relatively steady over the past 20 years, women in their twenties who drink report getting drunk more often today even though they’re drinking less overall.

In addition, the percentage of teenage girls in 2005 who said they’d had a drink in the past 30 days nearly equaled that of boys (42.8 vs. 43.8). In 1991, 45.9 percent of girls said they’d had a drink in the past 30 days compared to 50.1 percent of boys.


Alcohol is far and away the most commonly abused substance in the United States by men and women. But until the 1970s there was little if any research on alcohol abuse and addiction in women. Today, however, we know that while about the same percentage of men and women tend to drink, men drink far more often and in far larger amounts than women. Yet, research finds, alcohol hits women harder, wreaking more havoc.

It’s a myth that women can drink as much as men without suffering any worse consequences. There are much greater health risks for girls and women and their bodies from heavy drinking.

Women are more likely to develop liver disease, hypertension, brain and heart damage than men, even if they drink less and for a shorter period of time. Heavy drinking in women is also linked to a slightly increased risk of breast cancer, with some evidence suggesting that even mild-to-moderate drinking might increase the risk.

Overall, studies estimate that about 4 percent of all breast cancers in developed countries might be related to alcohol, with 27 drinks or more a week increasing the risk in pre-menopausal women, and six drinks a week or more increasing the risk of breast cancer in post-menopausal women.

Drinking in young women and teens is linked to delayed puberty, menstrual disorders, risky sex and teen pregnancy. It contributes to suicide and significantly increases a young woman’s risk of being raped or becoming the victim of other violence.

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