Drug use during pregnancy can severely affect your developing baby, and this does not only apply to illegal drugs.
Drugs, alcohol and substances, as well as commonly used over-the-counter medicines, can have irreversible harmful effects on an unborn child.
What the research says
Extensive research has shown that the use of tobacco, alcohol, or drugs — illegal or not — by pregnant women, can have severe health effects on the growing baby.
The use of those substances during pregnancy is associated with double or even triple the risk of stillbirth. Apart from ending up as stillbirths, many of those born alive die during infancy, and even when they survive, they have serious health defects for life.
The reason is that many substances pass easily through the placenta, so when you take any of those substances it passes from your blood through to your baby. Your baby’s liver is one of the last organs to develop and does not mature until the later stages of pregnancy. Thus, your baby cannot process the substance, and those substances can seriously affect their organ development.
Risks for the baby
Using some drugs during pregnancy can have a lot of effects on the baby, and some of them include:
- birth defects
- low birth weight
- premature birth
- small head circumference
- sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
- neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS)
Neonatal abstinence syndrome is a condition where the baby goes through withdrawal effects upon birth. While most research on this condition has focused on the effects of opioids (prescription pain relievers or heroin), data have shown that the use of alcohol, sleeping pills, and caffeine during pregnancy may also cause the infant to show withdrawal symptoms at birth.
A newborn can develop withdrawal symptoms immediately or up to 14 days after birth. Some of those symptoms include:
- Excessive or high-pitched crying
- Abnormal sucking reflex
- Hyperactive reflexes
- Increased muscle tone
- Rapid breathing
- Sleep problems
- Stuffy nose and sneezing
- Blotchy skin coloring
The nature and severity of withdrawal symptoms the baby manifests depend on the drug used, how long and how often the birth mother used it, how her body breaks the drug down, and whether the infant was born full-term or prematurely.
The long-term effect on the baby
Many of the effects of drug use during pregnancy are long-lasting, but one that is very common and usually associated with alcohol use is the fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). Some of its long-lasting effects on the baby include:
- Learning and behavior
- Joints, bones, muscles, and some organs
- Managing emotions and developing social skills
- Hyperactivity and impulse control
- Communication, such as problems with speech
- The risk is likely to be greater the more you drink
What to do if you used alcohol or other substances without knowing you’re pregnant
Try not to worry, as worrying about it won’t make any difference. Moreover, it’s unlikely whatever you took before knowing you were pregnant has harmed your unborn child.
Pregnancy is calculated in weeks from the date of the first day of your last menstrual period, and by the time you missed your period to suspect you’re pregnant, the baby would’ve been a week or two. There’s little you can do that will hurt or help your pregnancy.
However, talk to your doctor or midwife. They will allay your fears and counsel you on the risks of using drugs during pregnancy.
Drinks and drugs for breastfeeding moms
Most substances you take while breastfeeding may pass into your breastmilk, and this includes all alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs, over-the-counter medications, prescription medications, or any other substance that causes mood changes. However, the amount that passes into the milk depends on the type of drug, the dose, and the level of the drug in your body (usually lowest before the next dose) when you breastfeed your baby.
As a breastfeeding mother, here’s what you should do:
- Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, illegal substances, and over-the-counter medications
- Always tell your doctor or pharmacist that you are breastfeeding
- If you are prescribed medication, try feeding your baby just before you take the medication to limit the amount passed into your breastmilk
Dr. Wanwadee Sapmee Panyakat (OB-GYN) (1 June 2022)