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Using Drugs and Alcohol During Pregnancy

Research shows that at least five percent of pregnant women use drugs or alcohol at some point during their pregnancy. Using addictive substances can cause significant health problems for infants, primarily because illicit drugs easily seep through the placenta. Even using more common drugs such as marijuana, tobacco, and prescription painkillers can have a lasting negative impact on the health of a newborn.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

Using drugs on a regular basis can result in neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), which is a medical condition that causes a newborn to exhibit withdrawal symptoms upon birth. Although many people associate NAS with the use of hard drugs, recent research has shown that the use of caffeine, barbiturates, and benzodiazepines can cause withdrawal symptoms at birth. The degree and type of withdrawal symptoms presented depend heavily upon the drug used by the mother, as well as how often the mother used the drug and how the body processes the drug. Other factors, such as whether the child was born prematurely, may also impact the degree of chemical dependency exhibited.

Symptoms of drug withdrawal in infants can present immediately or up to two weeks after birth, and they may include:

  • Seizures
  • Slow weight gain
  • High-pitched or excessive crying
  • Fever
  • Poor feeding habits
  • Problems sleeping
  • Diarrhea
  • Hyperactive reflexes
  • Vomiting

As previously mentioned, the effects of drug use during pregnancy can result in permanent health problems in an infant. The risk of birth defects, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and small head circumference greatly increase with the use of certain drugs.

Can Pregnant Women Drink Wine?

Historically, it was acceptable to drink wine periodically during pregnancy. Many women even claim that drinking wine while pregnant had no impact on the birth of their child. If you are a heavy or intermediate wine consumer, it can be difficult to adjust to pregnancy, and you are probably wondering if it is healthy to drink a glass of wine now and then.

It is commonly known that excessive drinking of beer and liquor can result in complications during pregnancy and have a lasting impact on the health of an infant. Occasional drinking, however, does not seem to carry the same degree of risk. Despite all the conflicting information on the internet, most physicians now recommend mothers abstain from consuming any type of alcohol during pregnancy – even wine.

The more alcohol a mother consumes, the greater the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome. Fetal alcohol syndrome is a medical condition that impacts infants whose mothers consume excessive quantities of alcohol. When alcohol is consumed, it passes through the placenta and enters the infant’s bloodstream. This absorption of alcohol can result in a variety of birth defects, ranging from mental retardation to physical abnormalities. There is no way to determine what amount of alcohol causes fetal alcohol syndrome, so the safest way to avoid any potential complications is to avoid alcohol altogether during pregnancy.

While there is a significant amount of information regarding the impact of drinking while pregnant, there is less information about consuming alcohol while breastfeeding. Scientifically, there is little evidence to suggest that drinking alcohol impacts the production of breastmilk, however, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises women to limit the amount of alcohol they consume while nursing. Ideally, a 130-pound woman should not consume more than one standard drink daily, which is the equivalent of five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of liquor daily if breastfeeding. Following these guidelines can minimize the amount of alcohol passed from mother to child.

Children whose mothers consume large amounts of alcohol while pregnant are at greater risk for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). FASD refers to a variety of alcohol-related brain development disorders and birth defects. These effects can last throughout a person’s lifetime, making it difficult for them to socialize, learn, and work. Those who suffer from FASD may also suffer from impaired motor coordination and emotional control.


According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, roughly 10 percent of women consume tobacco during their pregnancy. Tobacco smoke contains nicotine and carbon monoxide that can interfere with a fetus’ oxygen supply. Nicotine can easily permeate the placenta, and the concentration of nicotine in a fetus can be significantly higher than that found in the mother. Smoking can also increase the risk for:

  • Birth defects
  • Miscarriage
  • Low birth weight
  • Premature birth

Infants of smoking mothers have exhibited signs of drug withdrawal similar to those shown in infants exposed to harder drugs. Smoking during pregnancy is associated with sudden infant death syndrome, learning disabilities, and an increased risk of obesity. Children whose mothers smoked during pregnancy are also more likely to use tobacco during their lifetimes. Even secondhand smoke can be dangerous to an infant, so mothers should avoid tobacco use completely during pregnancy.

Current research also supports the fact that using nicotine can be a gateway to using harder drugs, such as cocaine or heroin since nicotine makes the brain more sensitive to such drugs. E-cigarettes, also referred to as e-vaporizers, sometimes contain more nicotine than cigarettes, so they can pose an even greater risk to an infant’s health. Although more research is needed, pregnant women should avoid all vaping products.

Nursing women are also advised to avoid nicotine use while breastfeeding. Nicotine can pass through breastmilk, impacting an infant’s body and brain development processes. This can even occur if the mother does not smoke near the baby. Milk produced by mothers who smoke may also taste and smell like tobacco, which can result in a child enjoying the smell of cigarettes, cigars, or e-vaporizers later in life.


Caffeine is arguably the most commonly used drug in the world. Each day, hundreds of millions of people enjoy waking up with a cup of coffee, but should you consume caffeine if you are pregnant or nursing?

Caffeine is categorized as a stimulant, meaning it can increase both your heart rate and blood pressure. Consuming caffeine can also result in frequent urination, which lowers the amount of liquid in the body, resulting in dehydration. Caffeine does permeate the placenta, and although a healthy adult may be able to process moderate amounts of caffeine relatively easily, infants do not possess the enzymes necessary to metabolize caffeine. Caffeine is in more than just coffee – it is found in over-the-counter medications, chocolate, tea, and soda, so you should read ingredient lists carefully.

Some studies on animals have shown that caffeine can increase the risk of premature labor, birth defects, reduced fertility, preterm delivery, and low birth weight in infants. Although there have been few studies on humans, many physicians recommend greatly limiting or avoiding caffeine altogether during pregnancy. According to the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, women who consume more than 200mg of caffeine a day are nearly twice as likely to experience a miscarriage than women who do not consume caffeine.

Hard Drugs


Although access to marijuana has been greatly expanded over the past few years, there is relatively little information regarding the drug’s impact on the development and general health of infants. According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, cannabis can have a negative effect on fetal growth, especially in infants whose mothers frequently consume marijuana. The College recommends pregnant women and those who may become pregnant abstain from using marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes

Presently, there is no research linking cannabis use to miscarriage, however, there have been some animal studies connecting miscarriage to cannabis use early in pregnancy. Some researchers have found clear links between marijuana use during pregnancy and the development of hyperactivity and developmental disorders in children. Researchers often point to the high levels of carbon dioxide in cannabis, which can retard fetal growth.

There is mixed evidence in regards to premature birth and the use of marijuana by mothers. Although some evidence implies long-term use of the drug can increase the risk of premature birth, other evidence does not suggest this. Despite the fact that studies cannot establish a definite link between premature birth and marijuana use during pregnancy, the majority of medical professionals advise against using marijuana while pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or nursing.

There is little information regarding the impact marijuana can have on breastmilk. One study found that trace amounts of THC can find their way into a mother’s breastmilk if she consumes marijuana while nursing. This early exposure to marijuana can result in decreased motor development later in life for infants. When used regularly, THC can accumulate in breastmilk, leading to high concentrations. For these reasons, mothers should avoid using marijuana while pregnant completely.


Stimulants, such as methamphetamines, ecstasy, cocaine, and prescription stimulants, are the second most widely abused substances in the country. Frequently referred to as “uppers,” stimulants increase activity in the central nervous system. Stimulants are used for medical purposes and are often prescribed to treat conditions such as attention deficit disorder and sleep disorders. Although they are often prescribed by physicians, they can produce a euphoric effect, making them highly valuable street drugs. Unfortunately, prenatal stimulant use is on the rise, and many mothers do not know that using stimulants on a regular basis can result in lasting health problems for their newborns.


Cocaine is derived from the coca bush, which is native to the Andes Mountains in South America. The drug impacts a variety of neurotransmitters in the brain, resulting in the production of a stimulating and euphoric effect. Prolonged use of the drug can have lasting effects on the cerebral cortex and limbic system. Cocaine that can be heated and smoked is referred to as “crack,” but it is commonly snorted and some people inject it intravenously. Cocaine is capable of quickly crossing the placenta and impacting both fetal and maternal blood vessels. This constriction of the blood vessels can result in conditions such as fetal hypoxia and uteroplacental insufficiency.

Using cocaine during pregnancy can jeopardize the health of both the infant and mother. Women who use cocaine while pregnant are at higher risk of renal failure, heart attack, hypertension, cerebral ischemia, and maternal death. Cardiovascular complications can even result from using small amounts of cocaine. Cocaine use during pregnancy can have an even greater impact on a newborn. Studies associate cocaine use with lower birth weights, placental disruption, increased risk of miscarriage, and even stillbirth. After the child is delivered, they may also be at higher risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).


Methamphetamine, often referred to as crystal meth, speed, or ice, derives from the drug dextroamphetamine. It stimulates the central nervous system and increases the amount of norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine produced by the brain, resulting in a feeling of immense euphoria and energy. The drug can be manufactured using over-the-counter decongestants and cough syrups, and it can be snorted, injected, or smoked.

Methamphetamine is classified as a neurotoxin, so its impact on fetal brain development can be especially profound. Among animals, the use of methamphetamines resulted in a higher concentration of metabolites in the brain, and some studies show that infants who are exposed to methamphetamines during the first or second trimester may be more likely to suffer from poor brain development than those exposed to the drug during the third trimester. There may also be differences between male and female infants exposed to methamphetamines. Male offspring may be at increased risk of neurotoxicity as adults. It has also been found that stunted brain development may be higher in children whose mothers use tobacco and alcohol in addition to methamphetamines during pregnancy.

Prescription Stimulants

Prescription stimulants include commonly-known drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin, and Dexedrine, and they are primarily used to treat attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD). The drugs are capable of increasing focus, decreasing anxiety, and reducing hyperactivity when used as directed. Unfortunately, however, many individuals use prescription stimulants recreationally. Despite this, very little is actually known about the impact of stimulant use on pregnant women and infants. Some studies have shown that women who take stimulants while pregnant are slightly more likely to give birth prematurely or suffer from preeclampsia. Although there is not an abundance of evidence linking prescription stimulant use to prenatal medical complications, women should consult their physicians before attempting to take any stimulant medication while pregnant.


MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, is an illegal amphetamine used for recreational purposes. It typically comes in pill form and its effects can last several hours. The drug produces a euphoric sensation. Despite its prevalence, very little is known about the impact MDMA use can have on an infant.


Heroin, also called junk or smack, is an opioid drug produced from poppy plants. Heroin is derived from the opioid morphine, and it is usually in the form of a white or brown powder or a thick, black goo-like substance. It can be injected, smoked, or snorted. To increase its potency, heroin is often mixed with the opioid fentanyl. Using heroin while pregnant can place a mother at greater risk for addiction, coma, lung and heart infection, respiratory failure, hepatitis, and HIV (when needles are shared).

Heroin use during pregnancy can also have a lasting impact on the health of a newborn. The following medical conditions have been observed in children whose mothers used heroin while pregnant:

  • Premature birth
  • Birth defects
  • Low birth weight
  • Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS)
  • Stillbirth
  • Placental abruption

Infants impacted by prenatal heroin use may also be at a much higher risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Suddenly stopping your heroin use can be immensely dangerous to both you and your baby, so you should consult a medical professional first. Other drugs, such as buprenorphine and methadone can be used to treat heroin addiction.

Prescription Opioids

Prescription opioid use during pregnancy can affect both women and their infants. Even though patients need a valid prescription to obtain an opioid-based drug, many such drugs can be purchased illegally on the street. Opioid use during pregnancy is linked to a variety of poor health outcomes for both babies and their mothers. Long-term opioid use has been linked to preterm birth, stillbirth, poor fetal growth, birth defects, and neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). The effects of prenatal opioid use on adults are largely unknown, but it is recommended that women avoid using prescription opioids while pregnant or breastfeeding. Women should always consult their physician before attempting to stop any opioid-based medications (legal or illegal).

Are You Pregnant and Struggling With Drug or Alcohol Addiction?

If you are pregnant and struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, you may be feeling overwhelmed and scared. Such feelings are normal, and right now, it may even be difficult to imagine your life without drugs or alcohol. Fortunately, it is possible to get clean and reclaim your life and the life of your child. You don’t have to suffer alone anymore.

Here at Clean Recovery Centers, we understand the root causes of addiction. We strive to help patients from all walks of life become clean and sober. Our program utilizes a unique three-step, comprehensive approach to treating drug and alcohol addiction, and we are more than confident it can help you. Contact us today to get started on the road to recovery.


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