Health What Drinking or Taking Drugs While Pregnant Actually Does to Babies  

Ryleigh Nucilli
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Most people are aware that drugs and alcohol can have negative effects on pregnancy. However, the laundry list of potential birth defects and congenital issues related to alcohol and drug use while pregnant is less well-known. Perhaps the most intimidating reality about drugs and alcohol during pregnancy is that physicians and scientists don’t yet know what the critical amount of usage is that can lead to birth problems.

In fact, most reputable institutions, including the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state the bottom line is that “any time a pregnant woman drinks, she puts her unborn child in danger of having physical problems, behavioral challenges, and learning disabilities.” So, no amount of alcohol or drug use is considered safe for a pregnant woman.

Distinctive and Often Deformed Facial Features Can Develop


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Photo: Universal Pictures

Alcohol abuse during pregnancy can cause babies to be born with a set of distinctive facial features. One is microcephaly, a condition where a baby’s head is much smaller than normal. Microcephaly can be purely aesthetic with no associated developmental problems, but it can also mean the baby has an underdeveloped brain that stopped growing during the pregnancy with possible cognitive issues. Another disease caused by drinking that can affect a baby's appearance is fetal alcohol syndrome. Typically children with the syndrome have facial features including small eyelid openings, a short, upturned nose, a long distance from the nose to the upper lip, and a small, thin upper lip.

A Baby Can Be Born Addicted to Drugs


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Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) is a series of conditions a baby can suffer when exposed to addictive substances in the womb. When a mother uses drugs like heroin, codeine, oxycodone, or methadone at any time during pregnancy - especially in the week before birth - the fetus can become addicted to the drugs, too. These drugs pass through the placenta from mother to fetus. At birth a baby can go into withdrawal when its connection to the drugs is severed. Symptoms of NAS include everything from fever and diarrhea to increased muscle tone and seizures.  For some babies born with NAS, the withdrawal symptoms are so severe they require a treatment of methadone and morphine.

Infections Are Possible at Birth


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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Sharing hypodermic needles can pass infections like hepatitis C or HIV from one drug user to another. If the infected drug user is pregnant, then her infection can also pass to the developing fetus through the umbilical cord. As a result, babies of infected mothers can also born infected. 

Serious Heart Defects


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Photo: DFAT photo library/flickr/CC-BY 2.0

According to the March of Dimes, drinking and drugs during pregnancy can increase a baby’s risk of being born with a heart defect. The range of the defects is pretty substantial: A baby born with a congenital heart defect might have issues with the heart’s shape, the heart’s functions, or both. These issues range from non-serious effects that don't impact day-to-day life to extremely dangerous heart complications. Critical congenital heart defects (CCHDs) require treatment within the first few hours or days of a baby’s life, and they can be deadly without the necessary treatment. CCHDs can cause a baby’s heart to have problems with blood flow, causing it to slow down, develop in the wrong place, or be completely blocked. Although heart defects occur in babies whose mothers did not abuse alcohol and/or drugs, these substances increase the risk of their development.