The Effect of Substance Use While Pregnant

How Drugs and Alcohol Can Affect an Unborn Child


According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, substance use while pregnant and breastfeeding “can have severe health consequences for infants.” Drugs and alcohol can pass through the placenta affecting the fetus. It is not only illicit drugs but also prescription drugs that are taken without the guidance of an obstetrician. 

Increased Risk of Stillbirth

Drugs and alcohol taken during pregnancy can significantly increase a woman’s risk of stillbirth. Research indicates that depending on the substance, the risk of stillbirth can be doubled or even tripled.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse:

  • Tobacco use during pregnancy results in a 1.8x to 2.8x greater risk of stillbirth.
  • Marijuana use during pregnancy results in a 2.3x greater risk of stillbirth.
  • Stimulant, marijuana, or prescription pain reliever during pregnancy use results in a 2.2x greater risk of stillbirth.
  • Passive exposure to tobacco during pregnancy use results in a 2.1x greater risk of stillbirth.

Increased Risk of SIDS

Drugs and alcohol use can also increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in newborns. SIDS occurs suddenly, usually while an infant is sleeping. 

As noted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, infants of pregnant mothers who drank and smoke into the second trimester had a twelvefold risk of SIDS. While the cause of SIDS is unknown, not using drugs or alcohol while pregnant can help reduce the risk. 

Other Risks to Infants 

Additional risks of drug and alcohol use while pregnant include increased chances of birth defects, low birth weight, premature birth, and more. An infant born to a mother who used alcohol and drugs while pregnant may also go through withdrawal within the first few weeks after birth. Withdrawal symptoms can range from a stuffy nose and sneezing to seizures and hyperactive reflexes.

If you are pregnant and unable to stop using drugs or alcohol it is important to seek treatment immediately.