What are the effects of drugs on pregnancy?

Heavy drug use can damage the health of a pregnant woman, cause complications during pregnancy and possibly damage the foetus. Drugs can affect an unborn baby through the mother’s bloodstream. It is relatively rare that this actually causes malformations. Heavy use of certain drugs during pregnancy, particularly alcohol, tobacco, heroin and other opiates and tranquillisers, can lead to premature birth, low birth weight and increased risk of losing the baby around the time of birth.

Babies born to mothers who are dependent on the drugs mentioned above (other than tobacco) may experience withdrawal symptoms but this can usually easily be treated medically.

Moderate drug use during pregnancy does not often result in these problems. Whilst it is usually safe for a pregnant woman to stop using drugs during pregnancy this is not always the case for heroin, other opiate drugs or tranquillisers. Suddenly stopping use of these drugs during pregnancy can be dangerous to the foetus and medical opinion is sometimes that it is safer for the mother to continue using till the baby is born.

Drug use and pregnancy is a very emotive issue. The most publicised example has been of ‘crack babies’ in America. Panic stories have sometimes exaggerated the damage done to babies whilst ignoring the fact that most of the mothers were living in very poor and deprived circumstances, factors which themselves are implicated in having a difficult pregnancy and complications in childbirth and for newly born babies. However, cocaine use is reported to increase risks, for example of miscarriage and still birth, low weight babies and pre-term (premature delivery). Adverse effects have been largely reported in heavy crack/cocaine users rather than ‘recreational or occasional users. Mothers-to-be are advised not to use cocaine or crack in pregnancy if they possibly can.

The danger of being judgmental about drug using pregnant women is that they will be reluctant to seek out the medical help they and their babies need.