What Are the Effects of Using Drugs While Pregnant

How Does Drug Use Affect Pregnancy?

Edited and Published by Wellness Stacie

Drug Addiction and Pregnancy

Addiction is a disease, whether it is to alcohol, drugs (such as Cocaine, Heroin, Methamphetamine, or Marijuana), or prescription pain pills. Once one feels the relief they crave from any of these drugs, it is difficult to go back to feeling the pain again, whatever that pain may be. When a woman becomes pregnant, many realize they should seek help to break away from the drug for the good of her baby, but the idea of going back to the way things “were” can be scary. For some women, breaking the addiction can be far scarier than dealing with the consequences of continuing with their substance abuse.

Understanding some of the dangers of continuing drug use while pregnant may help. After all, many things a woman does to her body while pregnant, are also being done to their unborn baby.

Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol is probably one of the most prevalent drugs used throughout society. If a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, the baby is also consuming the alcohol. There is no amount of alcohol that is acceptable to consume while pregnant. All alcohol consumption is considered not good, whether it is from wine, beer or hard liquor. While pregnant, a woman should avoid use of alcohol of any type or quantity.

the effects on a fetus from using drugs while pregnant

The consequences to the unborn baby from consuming alcohol by the mother while pregnant can include: miscarriage, still births, and physical, behavioral and intellectual disabilities, also known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (CDC.gov). This is a list of some of those characteristics and behaviors:

  • Abnormal facial features, such as a smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip
  • Small head size
  • Low body weight
  • Hyperactive behavior
  • Difficulty with attention
  • Poor memory
  • Learning disabilities
  • Speech and language delays
  • Poor reasoning and judgment skills
  • Vision and hearing problems
  • Problems with the heart, kidney, or bones

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy is dangerous to the baby. Drinking alcohol throughout the pregnancy can cause any one of the above mentioned issues. While in the first trimester, if the woman continues to drink, the alcohol consumption can cause abnormal facial features. The brain is developing throughout the pregnancy, so the sooner a woman stops drinking, the better.

Cocaine Usage

Cocaine is one of the harder drugs out there. It’s been around for decades. The user is typically seeking a euphoria or energy. In some cases, the user is seeking weight loss, as cocaine significantly decreases appetite. However, cocaine also causes blood vessels to constrict, dilated pupils, and an increased body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure (DrugAbuse.gov). It can cause bizarre behavior, anxiety, panic and tremors, among other things. The effects of cocaine can cause some people to do harmful things to themselves or others, with no knowledge of the event while it is transpiring or memory of it afterwards.

A pregnant woman that is using cocaine not only places herself at risk, she also places her baby in the direct line of danger. She should share with her healthcare provider if she is using any kind of drug so that her healthcare provider may be able to assist in getting her help and possibly avoid some of the dangers cocaine usage will do to her and her baby. Most women that are using drugs will not confide though, as they are concerned about being judged or losing custody of their unborn child. By avoiding this help, however, pregnant women addicted to cocaine are taking tremendous risks for herself and the unborn child.

Some of the risks to the mother from using cocaine include: seizures, migraines, premature membrane rupture, and separation of the placental lining from the uterus prior to delivery (DrugAbuse.gov). Being pregnant, a woman’s body goes through many changes (cardiovascular and otherwise) with the growth of the baby. This is known to hinder lung functionality. By using cocaine, the lungs are put under much more stress, preventing them to do their job. High blood pressure, preterm labor, spontaneous miscarriages and a difficult delivery become the result.

The babies that are born to mothers using cocaine are typically underweight. They also are generally premature, and are much smaller by being short in length and having a smaller head circumference than those babies born to mothers not using cocaine. Aside from the undersized and underweight of these babies, immediate consequences of the drug use are difficult to predict. However, in the long term, the baby may develop deficiencies in attention, information processing and cognitive performances such as reading, remembering, reasoning, etc..

Heroin Usage

Heroin has been harming unborn babies throughout multiple centuries

Heroin, or “smack”, is an opioid that derives from the seeds of poppy plants. Though unlike prescription opioids such as oxycodone, morphine or codeine, heroin is illegal and found on the streets. It is made from the opioid morphine, which morphine is typically prescribed after an injury to help alleviate pain. Heroin is used as an injection, smoked, snorted or sniffed. Oftentimes, when someone becomes addicted to heroin, it’s because they had previously become addicted to a prescription opioid drug.

An individual that is using heroin can expect to be dealt a hand of some very serious health conditions. Some of these conditions are coma, heart or lung infections, kidney or liver diseases, respiratory failure and even possibly HIV or hepatitis from sharing needles. Serious and deadly results from heroin usage generally are not a concern to the user that is trying to relieve pain. The consequences are of more concern to those around the user.

When a woman becomes pregnant and is using heroin, she is risking her baby’s life. These risks can transpire in the womb, though develop after the baby is born. Such risks range from death to defects. Below is a list of some of the risks she is taking (MarchofDimes.org).

  • Birth defects
  • Placental abruptions, when the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus before birth
  • Premature birth before 37 weeks
  • Low birth weight below 5 pounds, 8 ounces
  • Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) is when the baby becomes addicted to the drug in the womb and goes through withdrawal once born
  • Still birth
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)

Anyone that is addicted to heroin should never try to quit on their own, much less a pregnant woman. Going “cold turkey” will risk the mother’s life as well as their unborn baby’s life. Similar to a woman addicted to cocaine, heroin users may not admit to their drug use for fear of being judged, being arrested, or losing the custody of their child. These mothers can sometimes forget there are bigger risks than going to jail or having someone think differently of them, such as the loss of their own life and their baby’s.

It is worth noting that like many of these drugs, heroin has a long history of being used medicinally too. It was presumably used regularly by mothers back then without any one realizing how harmful it can be to the fetus/unborn child.

Marijuana Usage

Marijuana, also known as weed, pot, or bud. It is a drug that comes from the cannabis plant. It is used for recreational and medical purposes. There are many that would still prefer to see it outlawed in all states though it is slowly gaining momentum in being approved with restrictions. These restrictions depend on the state that is legalizing it. In most states, it is still illegal to use marijuana for recreation. Marijuana is probably the least contentious of the drugs being discussed in this article, though can still be very harmful to an unborn baby if the mother is partaking.

pregnant woman smoking a marijuana cigarette

Marijuana is typically used as a drug to induce euphoria, relaxation, pain relief and enhanced sensory perception (Healthline.com). It may be put on the skin through creams, eaten or smoked. In many cases, those that are having treatments for cancer such as chemotherapy are recommended to smoke marijuana to relieve the patient from some of the side effects they may suffer from the treatment.

Just like the previously discussed drugs, the use of marijuana by a pregnant woman can cause harm to their baby. Some of the risks they face are low birth weight, premature birth, small head circumference, small length and still birth. Though there is still much to be learned about the long term effects of marijuana usage by the mother on the baby, some of the side effects that have been noticed after birth include issues with: memory, attention, controlling impulses, and school performance. Additionally, the use of marijuana increases the exposure to carbon monoxide gas and can affect oxygen the baby receives which impacts their growth.

As far as marijuana usage during pregnancy, as with any drug, seek help to stop using. Never attempt to go “cold turkey”. The results of quitting any drug without help can be dangerous.

Methamphetamine Usage

The use of methamphetamine, also known as Meth is deadly. The makeup of this drug typically includes dangerous poisons such as drain cleaner, battery acid and anhydrous ammonia. Anyone using the drug is usually considered to be unlikely to seek medical treatment. Women that are pregnant also struggle with the desire to quit. They are additionally less likely to have proper prenatal care or even to follow a healthy diet.

Meth can cause low birth weight and small head circumferences. It also places the baby at increased risk of infections and death. They are likely to have mental development problems as well. Meth usage can cause brain hemorrhaging for the baby, stroke, and defective development of the abdomen and intestines (LiveStrong.com). The baby is likely to be born premature, before 37 weeks, due to their mother having high blood pressure ultimately caused by the meth. This can also cause placental problems.

Why would anyone, much less an expectant mother use meth when there are all these deadly risks? Methamphetamine is a drug that looks like a glass fragment or crystal. It’s typically taken either by inhaling/smoking, pill form, snorting or injecting the powder. Meth increases the amount of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine plays a part in movement, motivation and the reinforcement of rewarding behavior. Meth does not last long in the system, so many times, the user is repeatedly using the drug causing themselves to binge on the drug. Users of meth are typically seeking motivation and stimulation (DrugAbuse.gov).

Prescription Pain Pills

A prescription pain pill may seem harmless enough. It’s prescribed, so how bad can it be? As with any drug being used, when a woman finds out she is pregnant, she should immediately disclose any medications she is taking to her doctor. Some may be fine to continue to take with supervision. Some may need to be discontinued immediately and another option sought.

Pregnant Woman Worried About Drug Use

There are several categories when determining the level of threat to the unborn child. They range from category A, B, C, D, and X. A category A drug essentially shows no risk or harm, whereas category X is the complete opposite showing many risks. These categories are based on testing on animals as well as women. B would reflect no risk to animals, though no tests have been done on women; C animals show a risk, though there are no controlled studies in women or the studies are unavailable; D risks are present though the benefits to the woman may be acceptable despite the risk (AmericanPregnancy.com: Medication and Pregnancy).

Most women are told they may use Tylenol for pain while pregnant. Tylenol is considered a category C drug. It’s important to remember that women that are pregnant may be prescribed drugs due to conditions that develop while pregnant, such as gestational diabetes and depression. However the pregnant woman will be closely monitored while using the drugs and regular blood work or frequent sonograms may be completed. Some of the side effects of using prescription pain pills while pregnant include contractions resulting in preterm labor and birth, birth defects, and underdevelopment and/or underweight (AmericanPregancy.org: Abusing Prescription Drugs During Pregnancy).

The Common Factor

The common theme between all of these drugs is the harm to the baby and possible harm to the mother. In many cases, preterm births, underweight babies, smaller circumference heads, and birth defects are typical. The risk of the baby becoming addicted to the drug and suffering withdrawals after birth are also a risk. Most addicts will not say anything to their doctor about their addiction for fear of judgment, jail time or the loss of custody of their child. Though truly, the risk of life is far greater.

If a woman is addicted to any drug, regardless of what type, they should seek professional medical assistance and never attempt to quit on their own. For many drugs, going “cold turkey” creates the risk of causing additional problems, including death. And by positioning their unborn baby on the path of drug addiction, the mother is setting the stage of a difficult life for their child.


CDC.gov [https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/alcohol-use.html]

DrugAbuse.gov [https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-are-short-term-effects-cocaine-use]

DrugAbuse.gov [https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-are-effects-maternal-cocaine-use]

MarchofDimes.org [https://www.marchofdimes.org/pregnancy/heroin-and-pregnancy.aspx]

Healthline.com [https://www.healthline.com/health/pregnancy/smoking-weed#takeaway]

LiveStrong.com [https://www.livestrong.com/article/122799-effects-crystal-meth-skin/]

DrugAbuse.gov [https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/methamphetamine]

AmericanPregnancy.org: Medication and Pregnancy [http://americanpregnancy.org/medication/medication-and-pregnancy/]

AmericanPregnancy.org: Abusing Prescription Drugs During Pregnancy [http://americanpregnancy.org/pregnancy-health/abusing-prescription-drugs-during-pregnancy/]

Photo Credits:

Pregnant Woman Using Prescription Pain Pills [ID 122984982 © Fizkes | Dreamstime.com]

Fetus Photo [Biagio Azzarelli – Flickr :3D ultrasound of 3-inch (76 mm) fetus (about 3-1/2 months gestational age)]

Old Heroin Medicine Bottle [By Mpv_51 at English Wikipedia – Transferred from English Wikipedia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=546164]

Pregnant Woman Smoking Joint [By ashton – Flickr: When in Amsterdam…, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30495523]

Woman Worried [ID 112005664 © Ocusfocus | Dreamstime.com]