Illegal Drugs during Pregnancy: What you need to know and how to get help

Learn about common drugs, how these drugs harm your growing baby, and what you can do to get help.

Surprisingly, nearly four percent of all pregnant women in the US use illicit drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, Ecstasy and other amphetamines, and heroin, according to 2005 findings from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

How do these popular street drugs influence pregnancy? Take a look at what the experts say.


Alcohol abuse during pregnancy can cause what’s called Fetal-Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), associated with deformed teeth and facial features and mental retardation. (FAS is the leading preventable cause of mental retardation.)

Because no conclusive studies have been done on just how many drinks you can have while pregnant before harming your baby, experts suggest you steer clear of drinking.


Methamphetamine (Meth) and Ecstasy are popular chemical cousins of the drug amphetamine, a substance which causes the heart rate to increase (to dangerously high levels). Women who take methamphetamine during pregnancy see similar problems as women taking cocaine during pregnancy.

The use of amphetamines speeds up the user’s system and can cause the baby to get less oxygen, leading to a low birth weight baby.

According to the American Pregnancy Association (APA), Meth and Ecstasy can also increase the likelihood of premature labor, miscarriage, and placental abruption. Babies whose mothers take amphetamines during pregnancy are often born addicted to the drug and suffer withdrawal symptoms (such as tremors, sleeplessness, muscle spasms, and difficulties feeding).


According to the Organization of Teratology Information Services (OTIS), during the early stages of pregnancy, cocaine exposure may increase the chances of miscarriage. In the later parts of pregnancy, cocaine use may lead to placental abruption. Placental abruption can trigger severe bleeding, preterm labor, and fetal death. (Women who use cocaine while expecting also have a 25-percent greater risk of preterm labor, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecology).

The elimination of cocaine is slower in a fetus than in an adult. This means that cocaine remains in the baby’s body much longer than it does in your body. So, chances are high that babies who are exposed to cocaine during pregnancy will suffer from the following withdrawal symptoms: tremors, sleeplessness, muscle spasms, and difficulties feeding. Some experts believe that learning difficulties may result as the child gets older. Defects of the genitals, kidneys, and brain are also possible, according to the APA.


LSD, PCP, and ketamine (also known as the “date rape drug”) are all hallucinogenics, meaning people on these drugs may see and feel things that aren’t actually happening. For users, the events they are experiencing are very real, which can lead to dangerous behavior.

Although no conclusive tests have been done in these drugs during pregnancy, the APA reports that “PCP use during pregnancy can lead to low birth weight, poor muscle control, brain damage, birth defects, and withdrawal symptoms” in newborns.


Heroin is nonteratogen, that is, it’s not a substance that causes deformities in a developing baby. It is difficult to glean information from studies done on heroin and pregnancy because often times heroin users are also frequently using other substances.

What we do know is that heroin addiction, because of its associated poor nutrition and highly stressed day-to-day life, makes for a very complicated pregnancy. A baby born to a heroin addict will have a heroin “need” as well.

Because of the many risks to both mother and baby, care of a heroin-addicted pregnant woman should be under the care of a Maternal-Fetal Medicine specialist (perinatologist). If a mother tries to kick her habit while pregnant, she’ll undoubtedly go through withdrawal, and so also might the baby (studies note some stillbirths due to this complication).

The March of Dimes reports that although heroin can be sniffed, snorted, or smoked, many users choose to inject the drug into a muscle or vein. This introduces yet another risk for pregnant users: contracting HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) and passing it on to their babies.

It is important to note that pregnant women who use heroin should not attempt to quit the drug cold turkey. This can put their babies at increased risk of death, reports the March of Dimes. To kick the habit, women should instead consult a healthcare provider or drug treatment center and inquire about treatment with a drug called methadone. “Although infants born to mothers taking methadone also have withdrawal symptoms, they can be safely treated in the nursery and generally do better than babies born to women who continue to use heroin,” says the March of Dimes.


Any person who inhales solvents or glues during pregnancy puts themselves at great risk and possibly even death. The March of Dimes warns that abusing these substances during pregnancy can contribute to miscarriage, slow fetal growth, preterm labor, and congenital anomalies, not to mention serious damage to the mother’s liver, kidney, and brain.


One of the biggest problems in studying the effects of marijuana on babies is that most users use other substances that can hurt their babies, such as nicotine, cocaine, LSD, and alcohol. Scientists do know, however, that THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the active ingredient in marijuana, crosses the placenta and affects the developing baby.

Studies show that marijuana use during pregnancy can shorten the length of pregnancy, negatively influences the quality and duration of labor, impairs fetal growth, and may contribute to congenital defects in the newborn.

According to the March of Dimes, some babies who were regularly exposed to marijuana during pregnancy experience withdrawal-like symptoms after birth (for example, crying and trembling excessively).

The March of Dimes also reports that children exposed to marijuana in the womb may have problems paying attention later in life.

Opioid Painkillers

When the prescription opioid (related to morphine) painkiller, called pentazocine, is mixed with an over-the-counter allergy medicine, “T’s and Blues” is created. This deadly mix of drugs is often injected by users into a vein. “Babies of women who use T’s and Blues during pregnancy are at increased risk of slow growth and may suffer withdrawal symptoms,” reports the March of Dimes.

Babies of women who abuse prescription oral opioid painkillers such as oxycodone (OxyContin) also may undergo withdrawal.

Getting Help

If you’re suffering from drug addition to these or other substances, please seek suppport. The following contacts can help in your recovery:

And if a friend or family member is struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, please be sure to contact a Al-Anon or Nar-Anon group near you.

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