While it is common knowledge that drinking alcohol, using drugs, and smoking during pregnancy is always a very bad idea- many expecting mothers still do it despite the additional risk to the mother and the enormous health risks to the baby. All too often, people think of or hear of some anecdotal example of someone who drank, smoked, or did drugs during pregnancy and gave birth to a child who suffered no health related consequences. Sadly, these stories are often untrue, exaggerated, or not representative of the statistical reality. Even a child who appears to be born normal and healthy after being exposed to drugs in utero might have been more intelligent or more emotionally stable, and might suffer fewer health deficits later on in life.
According to WebMD, as many as 4.5% of pregnant women in the United States between the ages of 18 and 40 used drugs or alcohol during their first trimester of pregnancy. Of these, at least 20% gave birth to children with significant health deficits.
Then, of course, there is the problem of addiction. Because the harmful effects of using drugs and alcohol during pregnancy are so broadly known, any time a person even considers doing it- it is a sign of an addictive personality. Those who are predisposed to addictive behavior are far more likely to take risks with their own health and with the health of their unborn children.
So it is worth taking the time to go over all of the possible and probable harms that a pregnant woman may do to herself and to her unborn baby should she choose to use drugs or alcohol while pregnant.
11 Reasons Pregnant Women Should Avoid Alcohol and Drugs
1. Slow or Improper Infant Development
Your baby is just like a little sponge, soaking up everything you take in. He or she has a lot of growing to do over the course of 9 months, and despite the protections your body offers your child- the requirements of fetal growth make it very difficult for your system to filter out everything before it reaches your child.
While there is a certain amount of protection from the harmful things you consume, that protection is limited. Good judgment is your first defense, and your best defense. Depending on the genetic vulnerabilities you may or may not pass on to your baby, and the drug you choose- your baby could suffer any number of deformities or developmental retardations. Even a baby that appears to be totally healthy in every way can be born with reduced resistance to disease and toxins- leading to greater health problems down the road.
Nicotine, for example, is a well known vaso diuretic, which means it restricts blood vessels. In a fully formed adult, this is not as much of a problem. But for a growing fetus, it can restrict growth of new tissues and organs. Your unborn child cannot afford to lose any of the growth it is supposed to undergo during birth. In order for a child to be born safely, it must be strong enough to endure the birthing process. The same for the mother.
While modern medicine makes giving birth much less risky than it was just 100 years ago- the use of drugs or alcohol at any time before or during pregnancy can make giving birth more painful and dangerous.
There’s no telling which parts of an infant could be most effected from a developmental standpoint. In most cases, nicotine causes global low birth weight. But it could just as easily cause brain damage or some other terrible malformation.
2. Problems with Breastfeeding
Using drugs or alcohol during pregnancy can hinder the production of breast milk, or make the milk you produce unhealthy- or even unsafe for your baby to drink.
Despite great efforts by pediatric nutritionists to develop a replacement for breast milk, there is yet no better food for a new baby than the mother’s own natural breast milk. Children who are not given mother’s milk have significantly reduced immune function. This makes them much more likely to suffer from diseases all throughout their lives. Children fed on formula also tend to have as much as 5 to 10 fewer IQ points than children who receive breast milk. This places them at a significant competitive disadvantage compared to other children their age- resulting in a lower chance of success and fulfillment for a lifetime.
This means that your baby is counting on you to offer real mother’s milk. Using drugs or alcohol before, during, or after pregnancy can reduce your ability to produce breast milk. In some cases milk production can be stopped entirely. And in some instances, depending on the nature of the substance taken, your breast milk can be made harmful to your baby.
3. Learning Difficulties and Emotional Instability
Research shows, and hundreds of years of documented observation tells us, that children whose mothers have indulged in drugs or alcohol during or around the time of pregnancy tend to produce children who struggle scholastically, emotionally, and socially.
While environmental factors should be accounted for, it is undeniable that lower intelligence, reduced emotional stability, and the inability to develop positive social skills are directly linked to smoking, drinking, and drug use before, during, and after pregnancy.
All too often we see women who believe that using substances during pregnancy did not harm their children. Yet in so many of these cases, the children are found to be under performing and were significantly more likely to drop out of school, go to prison, or to be chronically unemployed.
4. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
One of the worst case scenarios is also one of the most common results of a woman drinking while pregnant. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) involve a range of the emotional and intellectual difficulties that we mentioned above. Characteristic features of children born with FASD are reduced cranial size and a smooth ridge between the upper lip and the nose. Almond shaped eyes, round features, and mental limitations similar to other serious developmental disabilities are common in those with FASD. Low birth rates are another common feature of the disorder in addition to poor reasoning, learning deficits, poor judgment, and low IQ.
Many children will not survive early childhood when they are born on the fetal alcohol syndrome spectrum. Many of those who do live to adulthood will have to remain in the care of their family for the rest of their lives or be given to a state or private institution where they will remain indefinitely. Most FASD diagnosed children who go into care of a group outside the family are abandoned- destined to live among strangers for the rest of their lives.
Frequently, the parents of children born with with these conditions experience a lifetime of guilt, knowing that their irresponsible behavior led to the ill health and loss of possibility that comes with FASD.
5. Even Caffeine can be Dangerous to Your Baby
Line nicotine, caffeine is a vaso diuretic. That means it constricts the involuntary smooth muscles in the blood vessels, intestines, and other parts of the body. For an adult, this results in the mild stimulation of the adrenal glands which gives us the energetic feeling so many coffee drinkers enjoy. But for an undeveloped fetus, it can mean birth defects, low birth weight, and all manner of other complications. These are the reasons children are generally not allowed to consume caffeine, since it is believed to disrupt normal growth.
Caffeine is known to cause damage to the kidneys, and in adults is often a contributing factor in the development of heart disease. When an unborn child is exposed to caffeine, the heart rate is increased dramatically. In some cases, caffeine has been suspected of contributing to a miscarriage.
6. Most Drugs are Not Tested on Pregnant Women
Every drug that is approved by the FDA for use by the public is tested on a population of adult people who have been fully informed as to the known and possible risks of the drug to be tested. Children are rarely- if ever- subjected to drug trials except in retrospect and in rare cases where side effects are well known to not be harmful.
When it comes to pregnant women, meeting the ethical standard required to enter them into a clinical drug trial are almost impossible to meet. This is because there is no possibility of obtaining consent from an unborn fetus. Even if the substance to be tested is some combination of harmless food item, using pregnant women as test subjects would still be a difficult case to bring before an ethics board.
Every person is different- including mothers and their unborn children. Certainly, every mother-child diad is especially unique. This means that in addition to the problem of consent, it is impossible to account for all of the possible effects for everyone involved. It is for this reason that clinical drug trials on pregnant mothers are very rare.
This means that any over the counter drug that has been deemed safe for use by adults or is not a controlled substance may be dangerous to your unborn child- or to you while pregnent. There is simply no way of knowing what effects any over the counter drug might have on the mother-child diad.
It may be hard to believe, but a drug that is generally believed safe- might be dangerous to you and your growing baby. Motrin, for example, has been known to cause miscarriages. Few people are aware of this, and women are still being given it while pregnant by well meaning nurses and care givers. Many other drugs may pose similar harms- but without clinical trials, there’s no telling what drug is safe and what drug is not.
7. Increased Risk of Addiction
Being pregnant is hard work. It takes a lot out of a woman’s system, and some women take years to recover. Breastfeeding is very demanding on the mother’s body as well. This means any drug will be more dangerous to you, and more addictive when you are pregnant or nursing.
Numerous studies have shown and demonstrated over the years that a pregnant mother may be more susceptible to becoming addicted to a drug that she used while pregnant. While pregnant, your system is much more vulnerable to all manner of stress factors- including those imposed by drugs. This means that the intoxicating effects of a substance can be stronger, making a pregnant mother more likely to become addicted. It also increases the risk of chemical dependence.
More disturbing still, is the fact that unborn babies whose mothers use addictive substances can be born addicted to the drug- and are at least ten times as likely to abuse drugs later in life or to suffer from an addiction disorder.
8. Your Child Will be in Danger of Losing Her or His Parent
It may seem heavy handed, but the fact is that nicotine and alcohol kill more people than almost any other drug- certainly more than any legal drug. Alcohol and tobacco are leading causes of heart disease, which is in turn one of the most common killers of Americans. Heart disease is the number one preventable cause of death in the United States, and those who smoke cigarettes are at least twice as likely to develop a cardiovascular condition.
This means you are increasing the risk that you will not live to see your child reach adulthood. The research has been very clear for many years that children who suffer the loss of a parent are far more likely to suffer severe emotional and social problems in adult life. They are much more likely to commit crimes, drop out of school, and abuse drugs and alcohol.
9. Increased Risk of Addiction as an Adult
Children who are exposed to a drug while in the womb are much more likely to become addicted or abuse that same drug later in life. It is not uncommon to find that a person’s drug of choice was something the mother exposed them to while she was pregnant. Those who find themselves hooked on a drug as adults report a stronger emotional connection to the drug compared to others who have used the same drug but were not exposed to it before birth.
What’s more, since drug use causes the user to become more resistant to the intoxicating effects of a drug- exposure during pregnancy poses an additional dependence/addiction risk since an even greater time span of possible exposure is created. Research has shown for many years that the younger a person starts using any controlled substance, the more likely they are to use and abuse that same substance over the course of their life.
10. Reduced Liver & Kidney Function
Most people who drink alcohol know that the popular social drug damages the ability of the body’s protective organs such as the liver and the kidneys to do their important job of cleansing the blood and removing toxins from the body. Functioning drinkers understand that they need to space out their drinking over the course of their lives to avoid permanently damaging their livers at a young age. While this is a misguided rationalization many times, it does apply to children in utero.
By exposing an unborn child to alcohol, the mother is almost certain to damage the child’s developing liver and kidneys. This will cause all manner of illness later in life. Weak liver and kidney function make the body much more vulnerable to disease.
Other reading: Drug rehab centers what you need to know.
11. You Are Violating the Principle of Consent
There have been a few studies that show a woman may be able to take one drink a week without harming her baby. However, these studies do not use large populations and were not conducted under strict controlled conditions. But the question of “can I?” does not answer the more important question of “should I?”
The choice to use a drug should always be the free choice of the person taking the drug. When you consume drugs or alcohol during pregnancy, you are forcing your unborn baby to take the drug without the even the slightest possibility of consent.
We mentioned above that clinical trials are not done on pregnant mothers partly because it is impossible to obtain consent from the child. If clinical researchers who do not even know you have that much respect for your baby- certainly you can have the good sense not to expose your child to drugs or alcohol to which he or she cannot give consent.
We owe it to our children to do everything we can to give them the best chance of a long, happy, and healthy life.