Using substances during pregnancy poses health risks for both the pregnant individual and the unborn child in the long and short term. The majority of substances (including opioids and stimulants) have proven to be harmful by possibly increasing the risk of miscarriage or causing migraines, seizers, or high blood pressure to the mother, which can harm the fetus. For someone who smokes tobacco or marijuana, takes prescription pain medicine, or uses any other illegal substance during pregnancy, the risk of stillbirth is proven to be twice to three times as high compared to women not using substances. If a pregnant person attempts to suddenly stop using drugs and alcohol without medical help, the fetus can be put at risk.
Some babies can experience withdrawal after birth, as a result of the substances the mother took during pregnancy. This is called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome or NAS. NAS typically occurs after a pregnant mother’s use of opioids, alcohol, caffeine, or some prescription sedatives during pregnancy, and can vary in severity based on substance being used, the amount of time it was taken, and the level of development of the child. Symptoms of NAS in a newborn can take up to 2 weeks to show and include: blotchy colored skin, diarrhea, excessive or inconsolable high-pitched crying, fever, increased heart rate, irritability, poor feeding, rapid breathing, sleep problems, trouble gaining weight, trembling, vomiting, and seizures. Aside from NAS, there’s also the potential for long-term and sometimes fatal effects such as a low birth weight or premature birth, birth defects, and SIDS or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
Treatment for Substance Use During Pregnancy
Choosing to begin treatment can be challenging for anyone, but often is particularly difficult during or after pregnancy. This can be due to a fear of social or legal consequences, or limited resources to things like child care during treatment. Some treatment programs tailored specifically to pregnant individuals provide prenatal care in addition to help safely stopping substance use without causing harm to the unborn child. Some infants must be treated for withdrawal symptoms, but the chances of this are lowered when treatment medicine is administered during pregnancy.
Substance Use and Breastfeeding
Currently, there is not conclusive research on long-term effects on a child after being exposed to substances through breast milk. That said, it is known that some substances such as marijuana, alcohol, nicotine, and certain prescriptions, can be found in it. Since there is a potential for any substance to affect an infant’s developing brain, anyone breastfeeding should consult their healthcare provider about any substance use.