The overwhelming majority of mothers would do anything to protect their children from harm. Unfortunately, either due to ignorance, carelessness, or sheer hopelessness, there are many expectant mothers who ingest substances into their bodies that are exceedingly harmful to themselves and to their unborn children. These substances are mostly recognized as addictive substances such as opioids, amphetamines, alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco. However, some over-the-counter and prescribed medications have also proven harmful to the developing fetus. Knowing the adverse effects of these substances on an unborn child will help expectant mothers prevent the consequences of their substance misuse from continuing on through another generation, or longer.
THE TIMING OF DRUG USE DURING PREGNANCY
The stage of pregnancy during which a harmful substance is used by the mother can determine the type of damage to the fetus. Even if there is only one episode of drug use during the early stage of pregnancy, the substance can damage the developing organs and limbs of the fetus. If the substance is taken during the later stage of pregnancy, it can cause damage to the baby’s central nervous system. After birth, the substance can also be transmitted to the baby through the mother’s milk. Regular use of addictive drugs throughout pregnancy involves the following risks:
Low birth weight
Birth defects (intellectual and learning disabilities, seizures, strokes)
Sudden Infant Death syndrome
Drug dependency and withdrawal symptoms in the baby (NAS = Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome)
OPIOID RISKS TO THE BABY DURING PREGNANCY
The most life-threatening risks to a newborn stem from the use of opioid drugs during pregnancy, such as heroin, codeine, Vicodin, and oxycodone. These babies are born with a profound addiction and show serious signs of withdrawal shortly after birth. The symptoms of infant withdrawal, or NAS, include high-pitched crying, poor feeding, tremors, irritability, sneezing, sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, and seizures. Medication-assisted treatment is required in these cases for both mother and baby in order to bring both safely through the withdrawal process.
ALCOHOL, TOBACCO, AND MARIJUANA RISKS TO THE BABY DURING PREGNANCY
Since everything the mother ingests goes directly to the fetus through the placenta, the effects of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana can be particularly serious. Because the growing fetus cannot eliminate the toxins contained in marijuana, tobacco and alcohol as efficiently as an adult, these toxins accumulate within the fetus and can potentially cause much damage. Alcohol in particular can prevent sufficient oxygen and nutrients from reaching the fetus through the placenta, resulting in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Infants born with FAS typically have small heads, facial abnormalities, dental malformations, and exhibit intellectual disabilities and delayed development as they grow older. Some experience vision impairment and poor coordination.
POSSIBLE RISKS OF PRESCRIPTION DRUGS TO THE BABY DURING PREGNANCY
Although the public is generally aware of the dangers of addictive drugs to the fetus during pregnancy, many are not aware that even some legitimate prescription drugs can pose a threat to an unborn baby. For example, the following prescription drugs have been proven potentially harmful to the fetus: the acne drug isotretinoin, the blood thinner warfarin, statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs), and misoprostol (an ulcer drug).
If a woman is pregnant, or may become pregnant, it is important that she consult with her healthcare provider before taking any medication. This includes any medications that she may have been taking for a condition prior to becoming pregnant, including any over-the-counter medications such as aspirin. She should never assume that a medication is safe during pregnancy. Often, a healthcare provider may recommend safer alternatives for minor conditions such as colds or sore throats. In addition to her healthcare provider, a woman can also find useful information as to the safety of a medication during pregnancy on the following sites:
a service of the non-profit Organization of Teratology information specialists. The site is recommended for healthcare providers as well.
public health initiative run by the CDC in conjunction with the FDA and other government partners for both families and healthcare providers.
More is being learned each year about the harmful effect of drugs during pregnancy. For this reason, it is important for a woman to educate herself concerning any substance that may harm her baby. If she is currently using addictive drugs such as opioids, alcohol, or tobacco, and finds that she is pregnant, she should stop immediately and get help – not only for her own sake, but for the sake of her innocent and defenseless child.