Pregnancy and Addiction
Using drugs, consuming any type or amount of alcohol, or smoking during pregnancy can cause serious, possibly permanent damage to your developing fetus.
Alcohol Use During Pregnancy
When you drink alcohol while pregnant, you are passing the alcohol to your fetus through the umbilical cord. This may cause your child to be born with serious physical, mental, behavioral, or learning problems. Even small amounts of alcohol, including beer and wine, can be detrimental to the developing fetus.
Alcohol is harmful during every phase of pregnancy and may occur before you even know you are pregnant. Drinking during the first trimester can result in a baby with abnormal facial features and other serious effects.
If you resume drinking alcohol after giving birth, the risk continues for children who are breastfed, as alcohol passes through the breast milk to your child.
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder
Drinking while pregnant may cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and a range of disabilities known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Disorders may include permanent physical, behavioral, or learning problems, or a combination of problems.
The most severe form of FASD is known as fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and has been linked to facial abnormalities, growth problems, and nervous system disorders.
According to the CDC, children with FASDs might exhibit:
- Small head size
- Shorter-than-average height
- Low body weight
- Poor coordination
- Hyperactive behavior
- Difficulty with attention
- Poor memory
- Difficulty in school (especially with math)
- Learning disabilities
- Speech and language delays
- Intellectual disability or low IQ
- Poor reasoning and judgment skills
- Sleep and sucking problems as a baby
- Vision or hearing problems
- Problems with the heart, kidney, or bones
Drug Abuse During Pregnancy
Any drug, whether prescription or illegal, has the potential to harm the developing fetus. Remember, anything you take passes into your bloodstream and directly to your baby through the umbilical cord.
Prescription Drugs & NAS
If you are taking a prescription medication and become pregnant or plan to become pregnant, notify your health care provider immediately. If the doctor advises you to continue taking the medication, it is vital you take it exactly as prescribed. Misusing prescription medications can cause great harm to the fetus.
Opioid use during pregnancy is especially dangerous to both you and your developing fetus. CDC surveys found pregnant women with opioid use disorder have an increased risk for death, and their babies have a higher risk for poor growth rate, premature birth, stillbirth, and birth defects.
Opioid use disorder also results in a higher rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). This means that upon birth, babies experience withdrawal symptoms from drugs they were exposed to in the womb.
Withdrawal symptoms usually begin within 24 hours of birth and may continue for several days. It is imperative that babies born with NAS undergo medically-assisted detoxification and close medical monitoring for a week or more following birth, as well as follow-up care.
NAS is most often linked to opioid use. Unfortunately, the number of pregnant women with opioid use disorder more than quadrupled between 1999 and 2014, according to CDC statistics.
Illegal Drug Use During Pregnancy
Some of the most commonly used illegal drugs in the U.S. include heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana (legal in some states), and ecstasy.
If you use illegal drugs while pregnant, your baby has a higher risk of:
- Low birth weight
- Premature birth
- Smaller-than-normal head size
- Birth defects, including heart defects
- Withdrawal symptoms after birth
- Learning and behavior problems
- Slower-than-normal growth
- Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
Drug use during gestation may damage the developing fetal brain, which can lower IQ, and cause lifelong cognitive deficits in learning, information-processing, memory, and attention span. It is also linked to heart and urinary tract defects in the baby, and to an increased risk of stroke in the unborn fetus.
If you use needles to inject drugs, your baby has a higher risk of infections like hepatitis C, HIV, and Zika. Needle use also increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, scarring and abscesses of the skin, blood clots and vein collapse, and a higher chance of overdose.
Cocaine use while pregnant increases your risk for premature membrane rupture, placental abruption, seizures, dangerously high blood pressure, miscarriage, and premature birth.
Smoking While Pregnant
As with alcohol and drugs, the toxins from cigarette smoke enter the fetus via the umbilical cord. Toxins like nicotine, carbon monoxide, and other harmful chemicals may slow fetal growth, as well as increase the risk of stillbirth, preterm birth, low birth weight, respiratory problems, birth defects, and infant mortality.
Children born to mothers who smoked during pregnancy are more likely to suffer from obesity or die from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
After birth, children exposed to secondhand smoke are more likely to have weaker lungs, respiratory problems like bronchitis and pneumonia, increased severity of asthma attacks if they have asthma and more frequent ear infections.
Treatment and Support Resources
Use of cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol during pregnancy can cause great harm to both you and your baby. Combined use of these substances is even more dangerous.
No matter where you are in your pregnancy, it is never too late to stop using unhealthy, dangerous substances. The sooner you stop, the less chance of permanent harm to your baby, and to yourself.
Educate yourself on the dangers of addiction. The CDC offers numerous resources for pregnant women and families regarding opioid and other drug use, alcohol use, and smoking.
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