Pregnancy is a fragile time for not one but two people—mom and her baby-to-be.

Every decision the expectant mom makes will affect the life of the little one growing inside of her, whether it’s inside the womb or outside. That fact alone becomes even more important if the mother is using addictive substances while pregnant.

There are women who are pregnant and battling a substance addiction at the same time. Maternity addiction is not an ideal or safe situation that promotes a healthy child and mother. Problems with the placenta, deep vein thrombosis (when a blood clot forms deep in a vein in the lower leg, thigh, pelvis, or arm), and antepartum hemorrhage (bleeding from the birth canal before the baby is born) are among the conditions that can happen.

Addiction during pregnancy also can cause problems for the unborn child. Addictive substances ingested by the mother will pass through the placenta, the baby’s source of food and oxygen, and eventually will reach the baby. The outcome is unpredictable, but this action raises the risk of a life fraught with complications.

It is advised that pregnant women avoid alcohol and drug use in all instances. Even that one glass of wine is risky. Here is a brief overview of how addictive substances can cause more harm than good.


Drinking alcohol while pregnant can cause lifelong challenges for the child. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 3.3 million women are at risk of exposing their developing baby to alcohol. Such exposure can cause fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs), which the agency defines as “ physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities that last a lifetime.”

Physical issues of FASDs include:

  • Low birth weight and growth
  • Organ problems (heart, kidney, others)
  • Damage to parts of the brain

Behavioral issues of FASDs include:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Hyperactivity
  • Difficult with paying attention
  • Inability to communicate in social situations

Drinking Without Knowing You’re Pregnant Is Problematic

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are 100 percent preventable, the CDC says. The federal agency warns that drinking during the first weeks of pregnancy is common because many women are not aware they are pregnant when they use alcohol. They may not know they have conceived until they are four weeks to six weeks in, which means the developing baby has already been exposed to harmful and toxic chemicals for at least a month or more.

“The baby’s brain, body, and organs are developing throughout pregnancy and can be affected by alcohol at any time,” the CDC writes on its website.

Drinking while pregnant robs the mother of certain vitamins and raises the risk of having a miscarriage or having a baby prematurely. Stillbirth, when a baby dies in the womb before 20 weeks of pregnancy, and sudden infant syndrome (SIDS), are possible as well. SIDS, which is also called crib death, is when an unexplained death of a baby younger than age 1 occurs. Fetal growth can be delayed, and women who use substances may have babies who are drowsy, jittery, or irritable.

If you think you are pregnant, or if there’s a chance you want to get pregnant shortly, you are advised to avoid alcohol. An alcohol screening given at a doctor’s office can help confirm pregnancy if there are questions or doubts.

Street Drugs

Illegal drugs, also known as street drugs, can harm an unborn baby. Pregnant women who use cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, methamphetamines (or other designer or club drugs), and marijuana put the child’s health at risk as well as their own. Prescription medications and over-the-counter drugs are no safer for use. If they are misused and abused, they, too, can also cause serious problems.

Premature birth, which is when a birth happens before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy, is a complication of illicit drug use. Another problem is low birthweight, when a baby weighs less than 5 pounds and 8 ounces. Reduced head circumference, or when the baby’s head is smaller than normal size, heart defects, birth defects, and infections that can be passed on between users of shared needles, are all complications that can result from substance abuse while pregnant.

Polydrug use, when more than one drug is used, can make it harder to know or determine exactly how substance abuse will affect a child. Drinking and doing drugs, for example, put mom and baby on an unpredictable path. Also, the effects of some drugs on mom and baby have not been determined for certain drugs, such as ecstasy. If you or someone you know is abusing drugs and alcohol and the person is pregnant, consider seeking drug treatment from a professional substance abuse treatment center.

Tobacco Use

While smoking tobacco is not illegal, it is still an unsafe practice for pregnant mothers to engage in. Smoking while carrying a baby can cause problems with the placenta and trigger the same problems seen when other addictive substances are used. Babies born to women who smoke can have a host of problems, including premature birth, low birthweight, birth defects, such as a cleft lip or cleft palate, and raises the risk of the baby staying in the hospital longer or dying.

Some pregnant women may resort to electronic cigarettes, but the CDC advises against using these devices with products containing nicotine, a chemical that can damage a baby’s brain and lungs. E-cigarette flavorings may also pose a risk to developing babies.

Opioid Addiction and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

Researchers have noted dramatic increases in the proportion of infants born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), a series of conditions that occur when a baby enters withdrawal from the drugs the baby was exposed to while in the womb. It mostly happens in cases involving the use of opioid medications, such as codeine, hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet), or Tramadol.

Some data indicate the number of babies born with opioid dependence in the United States is increasing. Babies with the condition are staying in hospital longer as they battle withdrawal symptoms, and those stays are costly.

One study noted a fivefold increase in the proportion of babies born with the syndrome from 2000 to 2012 when an estimated 21,732 infants were born with NAS. This is equivalent to one baby suffering from opiate withdrawal born every 25 minutes.

Also, babies stayed for an average of 16.9 days in the hospital as compared to 2.1 days for those without NAS. Hospital costs for NAS-affected newborns were $66,700 on average compared to $3,500 for babies without NAS.

A Word on Quitting Cold Turkey…

Women who have been using addictive substances throughout their pregnancies but now want to quit should not do so suddenly. “Going cold turkey” or abruptly stopping their use can cause severe health problems for the baby and could cause death.

Professional drug treatment at a licensed facility can help an addicted mother through the quitting and withdrawal process. Medications such as methadone and buprenorphine can help with dependence on harmful drugs though health challenges for the child are still possible after birth.

What to Do If You Are Pregnant and Have a Substance Addiction

The number of pregnant women between ages 15 to 44 who were admitted to substance abuse treatment facilities hovered between 4.4 percent and 4.8 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the 2013 Treatment Episode Data Set report.

The numbers in this population are low because of the barriers to treatment, such as not having health insurance or adequate transportation or child care for other children in the family. Fear of being judged or reported to law enforcement authorities are other reasons addicted pregnant women stay away.

It is advised that pregnant women who are battling substance addiction seek help from a treatment center. Comprehensive treatment that offers options for long-term residential or outpatient programs can be effective and help mother and baby. Before choosing a center, ensure its staff is knowledgeable and understands the unique and specific needs of pregnant addicted mothers.