Many women will use substances whilst they are pregnant without realising the harm drugs or alcohol could cause their unborn child. During pregnancy anything that goes into the mother’s body has the potential to adversely affect the baby.
Drinking alcohol, using illicit drugs, and abusing prescription medication (abuse includes – taking medicine not prescribed by a doctor, not intended for you, or in amounts in excess of those specified), can all have a harmful effect on a pregnancy, seriously affecting both the mother and baby’s health, and in some cases having lifelong consequences.
Taking drugs and drinking can increase the risk of a stillborn or premature birth. It can also lead to the baby having –
• Breathing difficulties.
• Issues with feeding.
• Higher susceptibility to infections.
• Growth and developmental problems.
• Learning difficulties.
Babies who have been exposed to substances in the womb are also at higher risk for SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).
For some pregnant women it is difficult to stop their drug and alcohol use, those struggling with dependency, addiction, untreated mental health conditions or for other reasons such as negative life experiences (current or past trauma). It is important to seek help as soon as possible to improve the effects on the health of the mother and the baby.
As reported by the Women’s Health department of the King’s College, London, the global prevalence of alcohol consumption during pregnancy is 9.8%. Meaning almost 10% of women will drink when they are pregnant.
Alcohol use in pregnancy can lead to a baby being born with foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), a permanent condition that occurs with varying degrees of severity. FAS was formally recognised in 1973. FASD (foetal alcohol syndrome disorder) is the term given to a range of more than 400 conditions and disorders associated with exposure to alcohol in the womb.
Alcohol passes through the placenta (in the blood) into the developing foetus. This can lead to physical problems – birth defects, underdeveloped organs, growth impairments, cerebral palsy, and epilepsy. It may also result in learning and behavioural problems; difficulties related to speech, memory, reading and writing; or conditions like ADHD and sleep disorders.
It is not just alcohol that needs to be avoided, taking illegal or recreational drugs during pregnancy can cause serious complications.
Whilst in the womb, a baby grows because of the nourishment carried from the mother via the placenta. A long-held belief that the placenta formed an impenetrable blockade against most drugs is now extensively viewed as being incorrect.
Along with any nutrients fed through the placenta, toxins present in the mother’s system can be transferred through to the foetus. Toxins which may cause damage to the developing embryonic organs and harmful substances which can lead the baby to developing dependencies.
It is important to understand that anything entering a mother’s system has the capacity to be passed to the foetus and can have a negative effect on the growth and development of the baby.
Opioid addiction is a worldwide problem. Opioids are highly addictive and include (illegal drug) heroin, (synthetic opioids) fentanyl and carfentanil, and (prescription pain relief) oxycodone, codeine, and morphine.
Women falling pregnant whilst taking opioids will find it incredibly difficult to stop, often requiring a medical detox, and plenty of support. Sadly, this is not always available or possible, and it is estimated that over 20,000 babies are born each year in the USA alone, suffering with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) and dependent on illegal or prescription drugs.
Newborns exposed to addictive opiate and opioid drugs while in utero develop NAS at birth, which is a type of withdrawal causing the baby’s body to shake, experience trouble breathing and sleeping, problems related to feeding and nutrition. It can also lead to potential long-term developmental issues as the child grows.
Stimulants, this includes cocaine, methamphetamines, ecstasy, and prescription stimulants such as dextroamphetamine, Ritalin, Adderall; were the second most widely used (and abused) substance by pregnant women, in the USA in 2019.
Women using stimulants during pregnancy are at increased risk of adverse perinatal, neonatal, and childhood outcomes. This includes (perinatal) low birth weights, small for gestational age, preterm birth, stillbirth, or neonatal death before 7 days of life; (neonatal) birth trauma, respiratory distress, birth asphyxia, hypothermia, and neonatal intensive care admission; (childhood) sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), poor foetal growth rate, and cognitive and behavioural problems.
The Avon Longitudinal Study of Pregnancy and Childhood reported that 5% of UK women will use cannabis during their pregnancy, and they expect that figure to rise.
These expectant mothers could be putting their child at risk for low birth weight, preterm birth, and stillbirth. The mothers are also at a higher risk for maternal hypertensive disorders such as preeclampsia (and superimposed), gestational and chronic hypertension.
Some studies show that exposure to cannabinoids may also increase the chances of future problems including obesity, high blood sugar and behavioural issues.
Alongside cannabis use, many women ingest cannabis by smoking it, combined with tobacco. Smoking when pregnant can lead to abnormal bleeding during pregnancy and delivery, putting both the mother and baby in danger. It can also lead to birth defects including cleft lip and cleft palate (an opening in the baby’s lip or in the roof of their mouth).
For those women with a medical condition such as epilepsy or diabetes, or any other they are medicated for, it can be dangerous to just cease taking prescription drugs. Without the correct treatment, the health and welfare of both the mother and the unborn baby could be at risk. It is best to consult with a medical professional to seek advice about the continuation of any medicine. It may need reviewing, and an alternative issuing for the term of the pregnancy.
Similarly, any mother abusing prescription medicine (abuse includes – taking medicine not prescribed by a doctor, not intended for you, or in amounts in excess of those specified), should also consult with their general practitioner as soon as possible, and be honest about what they have been taking. It can be harmful to stop taking substances suddenly without advice and support, even though this is something you may want to do.
If you are pregnant and struggling to stop drinking alcohol or taking drugs (illegal or prescription), then speak with your healthcare provider. Help is available and seeking it out will improve the future for both you and your baby.
Here at Ibiza Calm, our luxury residential rehab centre, we offer a range of therapies for the treatment of drug addiction, alcoholism, and prescription medicine dependency, as well as anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.
Our highly qualified team of doctors, therapists and counsellors will design for your care a bespoke personalised programme, individual and group therapy.
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