Effects of Substance Use During Pregnancy

While common sense tells us that alcohol, tobacco or drug use during pregnancy is not healthy for the mother or fetus, the true effects of such substance abuse on an unborn child are still being researched. Because a pregnant woman who abuses these substances is also more likely to engage in other unhealthy behaviors, such as having poor nutrition or minimal exercise, it can be difficult to tease out exactly which factors impact certain areas of fetal development. Here is what the current research suggests when it comes to the way certain substances impact fetal growth:

  • CAFFEINE (if used in excess) – Low birth weight; Infant irritability
  • ALCOHOL – Brain and spinal cord damage; Premature birth, miscarriage or stillbirth; Problems with bonding/feeding as a newborn; Small birth weight and growth problems in childhood; Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) that include small head size, flattened facial features, narrow eye openings; Learning and behavior problems in childhood and adolescence; Attention problems; Hearing and vision problems
  • TOBACCO/NICOTINE – Heart defects, often leading to death in the first year of life or continued health problems requiring hospitalization throughout childhood; Premature birth; Low birth weight; Birth defects such as cleft lip/palate; Higher risk of SIDS; Respiratory problems
  • MARIJUANA – Increased risk of premature birth; Possible withdrawal symptoms such as excessive crying and trembling; Easily overstimulated and difficulty adjusting to changes; Sleep problems in infancy and childhood; Increased risk of learning or behavioral problems; Difficulties with attention and concentration
  • AMPHETAMINTES (Ecstasy, meth) – Increased risk of defects such as clubfoot, cleft lip/palate, congenital heart problems; Premature birth and low birth weight at term; Possible withdrawal symptoms such as jitteriness, drowsiness and breathing problems; Learning problems in childhood and adolescence
  • HEROIN – Premature birth and stillbirth due to membrane ruptures; Low birth weight; Breathing problems; Likely withdrawal symptoms such as fever, sneezing, trembling, irritability, diarrhea, vomiting, continual crying and seizures; Higher risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome); Increased risk of health problems and birth defects
  • COCAINE – Placental problems leading to lack of oxygen for the fetus; Behavioral disturbances in infancy and childhood such as irritability, jitteriness, oversensitivity to even gentle touch/sound; Difficult to comfort babies, often withdrawn or unresponsive; Higher risk of SIDS; Language delays; Attention problems; Possible lower IQ

While many factors play a role in how these substances impact fetal development, such as the timing and frequency of substance use, here’s the moral of the story: A pregnant mother’s poor choices have a strong possibility of negatively impacting the growth of her unborn child, not only with development in the womb, but continued challenges with health problems and physical/mental/emotional disabilities throughout the child’s lifetime. The unfairness of that deal is beyond measure.

Link of the Week: National-Institute-on-Drug-Abuse

Next Week’s Blog: Learned Helplessness and Poor Self-Esteem due to Abuse

About Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker

Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker is an adoptee, adoptive parent, and psychologist who provides mental health support focused on adoption, trauma, and racial identity work. She is the author of the "Adoptees Like Me" book series.