The Dangers of Substance Use During Pregnancy

in Addiction
Morgan Metzger
Published Dec 23, 2020
dangers of substance use during pregnancy

Substance use during pregnancy is a public health issue. According to a study done in the United States in 2012, 5.9% of women use illicit drugs while pregnant and 8.5% drink alcohol, resulting in over 380,000 infants born addicted to illicit substances and over 550,000 exposed to alcohol in utero. The most commonly used substances during pregnancy include alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine. However, in recent years there has been an increase in opiate use during pregnancy. Drugs in pregnancy have various adverse effects on the infant, depending on the drug used. Substance use may also create devastating consequences for the mother.

Alcohol Use During Pregnancy

Alcohol use while pregnant can result in Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). This general term includes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, alcohol-related brain development disorders, and alcohol-related congenital disabilities. These effects can be abiding in infants and can last throughout their lives, causing difficulties with motor coordination, emotional control, schoolwork, socialization, and holding a job.

Marijuana Use During Pregnancy

There is little research done on how marijuana affects pregnancy and the impact on fetal development. A 2020 report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states that cannabis use may cause low birth weight and length, mostly with women who use marijuana frequently, especially in the first and second trimesters. Cannabis use has more than doubled in pregnant women from 2010-2017.

The NIDA report also suggests that some babies born to women who used marijuana during their pregnancy display altered responses to visual stimuli, increased trembling, and a high-pitched cry, indicating neurological development problems. In school, marijuana-exposed children are more likely to show gaps in problem-solving skills, memory, and the ability to pay attention. However, more research needs to be done to differentiate between these being possible effects of marijuana use during pregnancy or other environmental factors.

Cocaine Use During Pregnancy

Pregnant women who use cocaine are at higher risk for maternal migraines and seizures, premature membrane rupture, and placental abruption. Cocaine exacerbates any cardiovascular changes during pregnancy, sometimes leading to severe high blood pressure, spontaneous miscarriage, preterm labor, and challenging delivery. Infants born to mothers who used cocaine may also have a low birth weight and height. Other symptoms of babies born after cocaine use may include irritability, tremors, high-pitched crying, and excessive sucking.

Opiate Use During Pregnancy

Using opiates during pregnancy can cause neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). NAS occurs when opiates pass through the placenta to the fetus during pregnancy, causing the baby to become dependent. When a baby is born with NAS, they go through withdrawal symptoms, which may include:

  • Blotchy skin coloring
  • Diarrhea
  • Excessive or high-pitched crying
  • Fever
  • Irritability
  • Poor feeding
  • Seizures
  • Trembling
  • Vomiting

These symptoms can develop immediately or up to 14 days after birth.

Risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

Children born to mothers who used substances past the first trimester have an increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). SIDS is the sudden and unexplained death of a baby younger than a year old.

How to Treat Substance Use During Pregnancy

If a woman is physically dependent on substances or suffers from substance use disorder, she may go through withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit using. Withdrawal symptoms are uncomfortable, frightening, and even life-threatening. Withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Seizures
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Nightmares
  • Tremors
  • Anxiety
  • Muscle aches
  • Depression
  • Hallucinations
  • Heart problems
  • Restlessness

It is imperative, especially for pregnant women, to detox from using substances in the presence of medical professionals. This way, the symptoms and status of the fetus can be continuously monitored.

Breastfeeding may also be a useful tool for substance use in the postpartum period. Breastfeeding is the only available intervention shown to reduce NAS severity in opioid-dependent newborns. A 2016 study suggests that the promotion of breastfeeding may prevent or delay postpartum relapse.

A similar study states that 83% of pregnant women who were using substances and able to stop during pregnancy relapsed after their baby was born. Children with parents who use substances are at an increased risk for adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. ACEs are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children who grow in an environment with substance misuse may lack a sense of stability, safety, and bonding with parental figures. ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance misuse in adulthood.

Receiving detox treatment is essential for the health and wellbeing of the mother and infant, as is creating a relapse prevention plan. A relapse prevention plan is a written plan used to help recognize the signs of relapse, avoid triggers, and prevent a return to substance use. The following five components are vital to a relapse prevention plan:

  • Taking time for self-assessment and reflection
  • Recognizing your triggers and warning signs
  • Predict triggers and upcoming crises
  • Identify supports to help in difficult moments
  • Setting goals for a healthy lifestyle

Substance use during pregnancy is incredibly dangerous. There are numerous adverse effects on an infant born to a mother who uses drugs or alcohol, including developmental delays, attention issues, low birth weight, neonatal abstinence syndrome, and death. Neonatal abstinence syndrome causes an infant to go through withdrawal symptoms, as they have become dependent on opiates or other substances. Pregnant women need to seek help and detox from substances in the presence of a medical professional, where symptoms and the fetus can be continuously monitored. Detox can often be uncomfortable, frightening, and life-threatening. At Gallus Medical Detox Centers, we use proprietary, evidence-based medical protocols that prioritize our patients’ comfort and safety to guide them through the detox process. Our personalized treatment is delivered in a safe and peaceful environment. Our expert staff can help those who are pregnant create an aftercare plan, including residential treatment or therapy options. We can also help create a relapse prevention plan, which is imperative to maintaining sobriety. If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use while pregnant, call Gallus Medical Detox Centers at (866) 296-5242.