In terms of the safety of mothers and unborn children, drugs and pregnancy do not mix.

Emergency rooms and neo-natal units across the country serve as the front lines to a growing national tragedy — that of babies born addicted to powerful drugs and even suffering from birth defects related to use. The cost of shattered lives cannot be counted and the number of victims needing critical long-term care continues to grow.

When taken during pregnancy, all drugs — regardless of synthetic or natural origin and independent of legality or illegality — can have adverse effects on a pregnancy. Naturally, the “harder” addictive drugs tend to carry the most risk of defects, addiction, and death to the child. The earlier that a mother seeks treatment, the better chance her child has of avoiding the problems that can develop.

drugs and pregnancy

Statistics of Drug Use and Pregnancy

One way to understand the total impact of drug use on pregnancy and newborns comes by the numbers. Some of those most readily available are those showing the ugly growth of children addicted to drugs.

As of 2015, every 25 minutes a child arrived into an American hospital with symptoms of extreme withdrawal from hard drugs. While heroin and other opioids receive the most attention, cocaine and methamphetamines also have seen growth in use, potentially impacting a number of emerging lives.

The rate of growth in the numbers of narcotics addicted newborns has been astonishing. In 2004, seven in one thousand babies entered the world addicted to narcotics. Only nine years later, that number nearly quadrupled. In Kentucky, one of the ground zero states for opioid addiction, 28 babies were born addicted to drugs. By 2014, that number exploded to over 1,400. In Sullivan County, Tennessee, 2017 saw a rate of 50.5 per thousand.

Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi witnessed the worst of the crisis with rates of babies born to narcotics addiction averaging between 15 and 20 per thousand live births. Nationally, between 2000 and 2009 the number of opioid-addicted births grew from 1.2 to 5.63 per thousand in 2009. Narcotics-addicted births also rose dramatically from 1.2 in 2000 to 5.8 in 2012.

Just as important are statistics related to drug use and stillbirth. Tobacco use increases the risk of stillbirth by 1.8 to 2.8 times. Marijuana is associated with stillbirths as well, raising the risks by 2.3 percent. The use of all illegal stimulants and prescription pain pills raise the chances by 2.2 percent.

Birth Defects Caused by Drugs

Illegal drugs take their toll both on the body of the mother and the child. First, many can prevent pregnancy in the first place by causing infertility. Because of the intimate nature of sharing between mother and child during pregnancy, the baby gets exposed to almost every healthy and also unhealthy substance ingested into the body. Of course a child’s developing body during pregnancy will often have more acute reactions to the toxins of drugs than the mother.

Illegal drug use can threaten the baby’s source of nourishment through disrupting the placenta, which serves as the child’s first line of defense against the mother’s drug use. Sometimes it can cause placental abruption, the partial or total separation of the placenta from the uterus. If it crosses the uterus and the placental barrier, the toxins can create defects.

Drug use can also cause premature birth, miscarriage, and stillbirth.

Although most babies born to drug-addicted parents survive, many of these suffer a wide range of physical and cognitive defects.

The effects of drugs can ravage the development of children inside the womb. They can lead to smaller than normal head development, which in turn may cause reduced brain capacity. The heart can also suffer from defects that compromise its ability to function correctly.

Any number of birth defects can be attributed to drug use. When an outside agent, such as a drug, causes defects, it usually does so in the area of the child developing at the time of exposure. This makes predicting which drug can cause which defect somewhat difficult.

Drug use during pregnancy can also cause a number of cognitive problems. Children from these parents often saw a higher rate of learning disabilities. A government study showed that children born from drug-using mothers had cognitive and motor skill scores that ranked significantly lower than those from mothers who did not use drugs.

Cognitive defects occur when drugs blaze through the infant’s developing pathways in the brain at cellular and molecular levels. They can also affect the child indirectly through stress hormones secreted by the mother during use of certain drugs.

Fetal Drug Syndrome

With the number of drug-addicted newborns rapidly rising, it becomes more important to understand the nature of addiction on newborns. Those diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS for short, will typically show symptoms such as

  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Gagging
  • Excessive hiccuping
  • Rapid breathing
  • Color changes
  • Tremors and jitteriness

Many of these conditions stem from problems caused by drugs to the autonomic nervous system. Doctors usually try to avoid using drugs when weaning babies from substances, but will sometimes administer morphine to curb the more serious effects. It can take up to six months to address the effects of addiction.

Heroin and Pregnancy

Heroin originates from the same source as many prescription pain medications, morphine, and opium. It generally comes in a white or brown powder, but can also be obtained in a dark colored, sticky form called “black tar.”  Many people come to use heroin after growing addicted to legally obtained prescription pain medications and is most often injected, smoked, or ingested through the nose.

The drug takes a toll even on otherwise healthy adults. Once addiction sets in, the user falls under increasing risk of heart trouble, coma, kidney and liver disease, and heart and lung infections. Those who share needles also have an elevated risk of exposure to Hepatitis C and HIV.

Children, of course, can inherit HIV and hepatitis from infected mothers. They will also have the same serious and occasionally life-threatening symptoms of withdrawal as adults. Mothers have a greater risk of premature birth while their babies will often suffer from low birthweight.

Mothers addicted to heroin should always seek professional assistance in getting off drugs while pregnant. A “cold turkey” approach can actually threaten the life of an addicted child inside the mother.

Cocaine and Pregnancy

Experts say that over three quarters of a million babies born every year come from a cocaine-exposed pregnancy, although many admit that these numbers could range much higher. Cocaine is a stimulant that produces a high rush of energy with accompanying feelings of euphoria and empowerment. It also speeds up the central nervous system, raises the heart rate, and increases body temperature, and blocks the brain chemical dopamine, which creates and preserves the “high.”

When used during pregnancy, cocaine can create serious and unpleasant side effects for the mother. Normal cardiovascular changes in the mother can create strain on the system, and cocaine use will accentuate this strain. These can contribute to migraines, high blood pressure, placenta separation problems, and delivery issues.

The babies themselves can suffer from birth difficulties, including premature delivery, physical, and cognitive problems. Cocaine-exposed babies tend to have smaller head circumferences, shorter body lengths, and other issues. As these babies get older, experts notice an increased rate of cognitive issues such as lower intelligence, poor social skills, reduced information processing and attention span, as well as behavior problems. Though it can occasionally be difficult to separate the effects of pregnancy drug use with those of a poor environment, cocaine use is proven to have a high correlation with these problems.

Methamphetamines and Pregnancy

Methamphetamines originated in Japan as a synthetic equivalent of the naturally occurring drug ephedrine. Over the first half of the last century, drug companies included this powerful stimulant into common drugs for respiratory conditions, weight loss, and other treatments. During World War II, many of the belligerent militaries experimented with their use on soldiers to maximize performance and inhibit fear. After the war, many took advantage of their stimulant properties for recreational uses. This included production and distribution of the very powerful crystal form of the drug.

These deadly stimulants can cause serious addiction, loss of sleep, elevated body temperature, high blood pressure, and other symptoms. Over time, drug use can create damage to the heart, the teeth, and other parts of the body.

Again, babies exposed to methamphetamine use during pregnancy often endure shorter pregnancies and lower birth weights. It can also contribute to the formation of physical deformities, such as cleft palates. Researchers, however, have determined that a single dose of meth during pregnancy carries a powerful risk of cognitive and neurological difficulties later on. This includes motor coordination. Methamphetamines can affect development in the infant even at the DNA level.

Indirect Effects on the Child

Of course, the effects of addiction to drugs doesn’t only hurt the unborn child directly. One of the most important factors in a successful pregnancy and a thriving child lies in prenatal care. This includes regular visits to the physician, proper nutrition, and avoiding situations that can cause the mother or child harm. Those who use drugs have a lower likelihood of seeking out proper prenatal care.

Some of the “hard” drugs, particularly meth and cocaine, reduce the natural urges to consume food. This can reduce the likelihood of the mother eating properly and getting her unborn child significant nutrition. Moreover, a parent dealing with her own addiction struggle will likely be overwhelmed with a child who has the same issues. Children of addicts are much more likely to experience physical or mental abuse and endure unstable or dysfunctional family environments.

Opiate use and addiction have been linked to half of the major crimes committed in the United States, meaning that addicted mothers have a much higher likelihood than non-users of going to jail. Families broken down by parents going to jail increases dysfunction and pushes children into more serious situations.

Unfortunately, addicted parents are often more likely to put obtaining drugs above the health, safety, and welfare of their children, born or unborn. Loved ones must realize that they would not make these choices if they were not deeply ill and needing help.

Legal Consequences of Using Drugs While Pregnant

In many states, mothers can face legal repercussions for using illegal drugs while pregnant. As the numbers of children exposed to and harmed by illegal drugs while pregnant continues to rise dramatically, state legislatures have stepped in to pass laws that seek to punish the crime, deter use, protect children, and leverage mothers into treatment programs.

In 23 states and the District of Columbia, using drugs while pregnant falls under state child abuse laws. Some state court systems have ruled in the same fashion, extending legal protection over unborn children. With the exception of Tennessee, however, none of these states prosecute mothers in the criminal court system. Instead, they remain under the jurisdiction of civil family courts that impose penalties that often involve ensuring safety of the child.

Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin are the only three where drug use during pregnancy enable officials to coerce drug treatment for the mother.

Reach Out Today

A pregnant woman addicted to drugs stands vulnerable to a host of problems. From the drugs attacking her body to the impact on the child, they can cause serious damage. Drug-addicted women, in general, are also more likely to endure rape, domestic abuse, and other attacks. This disease, however, cannot be conquered on its own. Addicts need the help and support of medical professionals, particularly if they are pregnant.

If you or a loved one need drug counseling, recovery, or rehabilitation, contact the Recovery Oasis Center in Tempe, Arizona. Call our staff today to schedule an appointment or to ask questions about our treatment plans and options. Our number is (480) 699-1233. Alternatively, you can email us at

All addicts are under threat, but those carrying a child need treatment for two. Please reach out today to protect both.