Illegal Drugs and Alcohol

Reviewed by James Brann, MD
Using illegal drugs or drinking alcohol while you’re pregnant could lead to some serious issues concerning your unborn child. If you’re trying to get pregnant, it’s extremely important that you stop taking illegal drugs and drinking alcohol immediately, before you become pregnant.
There are a couple of good reasons why. First, you should know that just a small dose of an illegal drug or a little bit of alcohol is harmful during pregnancy. Second, you may not even realize you’re pregnant for the first few weeks that you are.

Problems with alcohol during pregnancy

Children born to moms who drink alcohol while pregnant could end up with fetal alcohol syndrome, or FAS. This type of condition leads to growth problems and even brain damage. When compared to other babies, children with FAS often are fussy, have smaller heads and weigh less. The problems continue during their lifetime, showing up in how they act and think.
Drinking while pregnant may also lead to an increased chance of having a stillbirth. That’s when your baby dies before you deliver, somewhere after week 20, during the second half of your pregnancy.

Problems with illegal drugs during pregnancy

The problems that develop from taking illegal drugs while pregnant depend greatly on what you take, how much you take, how long you take it and when you take it. While not every woman will develop problems, many women and their babies will.

The potential problems can also be dependent on whether a pregnant mom is also drinking alcohol or smoking while taking the illegal drugs.

Doctors don’t know exactly what to expect from each illegal drug during pregnancy because it’s hard to study. Oftentimes, women who are using illegal drugs while pregnant are using more than one type of drug. In addition, these women often have other problems. When a pregnant woman is taking more than one drug, it’s more difficult to figure out which drug to blame when there’s a problem. Also, those problems may be related to something else entirely.

However, there is enough known about both pregnancy and illegal drugs for doctors to recommend women avoid them during this time. There is proof that certain drugs do cause certain problems. These include:

  • Cocaine - Women using cocaine during pregnancy have a greater chance of problems with the placenta. This organ carries oxygen and nutrients from a mother to her child, and then carries away the waste. Cocaine usage may lead to the placenta separating from a mom’s uterus before she gives birth. This could harm both mom and baby. Moms using cocaine also have an increased risk of delivering premature babies, or rather delivering too early, and for those babies to be small. These types of problems will likely lead to issues with hearing, breathing, vision, sleeping and feeding.
  • Heroin - Women using heroin while pregnant are at greater risk for dangerous problems that could affect both them and their unborn child. Women using heroin are at risk of developing infections, which also may infect the child. These babies may also weigh less than other babies, or even have something called opioid withdrawal syndrome, a serious problem when they’re born.
  • Marijuana or Methamphetamine - Using other drugs like marijuana or methamphetamine could also cause problems later on including during birth, or for a child later in life. More research is needed.
If you’re using illegal drugs, or drinking alcohol, and you find out you’re pregnant, make sure you talk to your nurse or doctor right away. She or he can give you some advice on how to quit safely. If you use an excess of heroin or alcohol, just stopping suddenly could actually be dangerous for your baby and for you. Lean on your nurse or doctor to help you do it safely, so you can try to help your unborn child. You may need to start taking certain medicines as part of this. In addition, your nurse or doctor should be able to put you in touch with a support group or counselors for help.


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