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The Effects of Drug Use While Pregnant


The dangers of using drugs and alcohol while pregnant have been well-documented throughout the United States. A number of high-profile federal court decisions have shaped federal policy on the issue, but before we discuss the legal implications of substance use during pregnancy, we have to consider the health risks.

In this piece, we’ll discuss:

  • The implications of using drugs and alcohol while pregnant
  • The physical damage that can occur to the child in utero and after birth
  • Why pregnant women need to be more careful about what they put into their bodies, even if some substances are technically legal to consume

Why Avoid Addictive Substances During Pregnancy?

Think about the implications of drug use without considering the context. If you drink alcohol occasionally or use an illicit substance like cocaine or prescription opioids, you may not experience any negative effects. People don’t become addicts after just one use in most cases.

But, think about what would happen if you did one of these things while pregnant. While you may not experience negative health effects, now you’re responsible for another living being. Your unborn child has a delicate system, and whatever you put into your system is inherently being exposed to your unborn child.

Studies have found sufficient proof that drug and alcohol use during pregnancy has a direct impact on the developing infant, and may cause a number of complications, including:

  • Miscarriage and stillbirths
  • Birth defects
  • Developmental disorders after birth
  • Premature or underweight infants at the time of birth

How Many Women Use Drugs or Alcohol While Pregnant?

Measuring rates of drug use and abuse is flawed, as it’s typically the result of voluntary response surveys. Many users and addicts may not respond truthfully, so it’s generally understood that rates reported in the media and in studies may be lower than they really are.

With that in mind, let’s take alcohol as an example. A 2013 report compiled by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that 8.5 percent of women admitted to drinking at some point during their pregnancy, with 18 percent drinking during the first trimester.

Other public health surveys carried out over the past few decades suggest similar numbers for marijuana, cigarettes, and other drugs.

It’s important to understand the legality of this behavior. A 1997 Supreme Court Case, Whitner v. South Carolina, established a precedent for charging a pregnant mother who was observed drinking alcohol with child abuse for endangering her unborn child.

Here, we’re focusing on the health risks of these behaviors, but the legal implications are always important to keep in mind if you or someone you know are abusing drugs or alcohol while pregnant.

The Effects of Drugs and Alcohol on a Pregnancy

Most substances that chemically alter the user’s mind have been shown to affect the development of a child, both before and after the child’s birth. Here are some examples of commonly used substances and how they affect this crucial development.


According to NIDA, using cocaine during pregnancy can significantly decrease the viability of a pregnancy. Additionally, cocaine use can lead to the following complications if the user is pregnant:

  • Increased risk of heart attack, respiratory failure, stroke and seizures
  • Problems with cognitive performance and information-processing
  • Difficulty with attention to tasks
  • Urinary tract and heart problems
  • Greatly increases the risk of preterm labor and low birth weight
  • Babies may have feeding difficulties


Many of the effects of using methamphetamine (meth) while pregnant are not widely understood, but studies have shown that in mothers who frequently use meth while pregnant are likely to pass on that toxicology to their child if the infant is viable.

Meth use is thought to have an impact on risk for preterm labor, low birth weight, and even some difficulties with feeding.


Not much is known about the effects of marijuana consumption on a developing infant, but according to the CDC, it matters how the drug is consumed.

For example, marijuana smoke produces many of the same chemicals as cigarette smoke, which can present danger to a pregnancy. This is why smoking of any kind is not recommended during this nine-month period.

Other potential risks of marijuana consumption prior to birth include:

  • Early childhood behavioral problems, symptoms of ADHD
  • Issues with the child’s memory and attention span
  • Premature birth
  • Low birth weight
  • Developmental delays


Alcohol consumption during pregnancy is more common than you’d think, especially after hearing the potential risks to an unborn baby. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs) are complications that can come from alcohol consumption during pregnancy, and contrary to popular belief, this can come from only one or two drinks at a time.

The list of complications caused by FASDs includes:

  • Serious lifelong developmental disorders and mental illness
  • Physical development issues and birth defects
  • Issues with the viability of the birth – preterm labor and miscarriage

The SAMHSA study mentioned above suggested that 18 percent of pregnant women drink in their first trimester. Many of these women may be drinking before they even know they’re pregnant, but alcohol consumption at any point in the pregnancy can cause FASDs.


While not one known to be heavily abused or regulated, caffeine is technically a drug. While the negative effects of caffeine consumption haven’t been studied in depth as much as they need to, experts say that there are risks of consuming caffeine while pregnant, simply due to the fact that caffeine crosses the placenta and gets into the infant’s system while in utero.

The Bottom Line

Legal issues aside, drugs and alcohol should obviously be avoided if you’re pregnant or even have the possibility of becoming pregnant. Even in the first trimester, consumption of drugs and alcohol can have impacts on the development of the embryo.

If you or a loved one are facing drug charges, pregnant or not, contact the Kent Collins Law Firm. Defense attorney Kent Collins is able to protect your interests when faced with a wide range of criminal charges.

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