Abusing drugs can have a seriously negative impact on a developing fetus. It can result in developmental issues, congenital disabilities, miscarriage, and stillbirth.

If you are pregnant and addicted to drugs, consult with a physician immediately. Stopping drug use suddenly can be dangerous, and pregnancy can complicate an already fragile situation.

Addiction and Pregnancy

According to a 2016 study, polydrug use (the use of multiple drugs by the same person) during pregnancy is unfortunately common. About six percent of pregnant women use drugs, and over eight percent drink alcohol. In addition, nearly 16 percent smoke cigarettes.

Women are at their highest risk of developing an addiction during their reproductive years.

The following are commonly abused drugs during pregnancy:

Commonly Abused Drugs During Pregnancy

  •  Tobacco products
  •  Alcohol
  •  Cannabis
  •  Stimulants
  •  Opioids

Pregnant women should not use any drug without a doctor’s approval and supervision. Also, the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS) rejects the idea that light drinking is okay during pregnancy despite some doctors claiming it is.

How Can Drug Use Hurt a Developing Fetus?

Exactly how a given drug affects a developing fetus depends greatly on the drug in question and the extent of use.

If something is affecting you while you are pregnant, it also is affecting your developing baby to a greater degree. A fetus is more sensitive to chemical imbalances and just about any other problem than you are. Something that does not seem to be hurting you much does not necessarily mean it is not seriously hurting your baby’s development.

Babies born to mothers who use drugs during pregnancy could experience the following issues:

  •  Low birth weight
  •  Undeveloped organs
  •  Premature birth
  •  Stillbirth
  •  Respiratory issues
  •  Learning disabilities
  •  Vision and hearing problems
  •  Trembling
  •  Withdrawal symptoms
  •  Facial deformities
  •  Behavioral disorders
  •  Nervous system problems
  •  Poor bone development

Common drugs of abuse may affect a fetus in specific ways.


Increased risk of learning and behavioral problems, premature birth, low birth weight, and miscarriage


Increased risk of serious congenital disabilities of the brain, genitals, or kidneys, preterm birth, cocaine withdrawal symptoms in the baby at birth, and miscarriage.


Increased risk of premature birth, low birth weight, breathing problems, low blood sugar, heroin withdrawal symptoms at birth, bleeding in the baby’s brain, and miscarriage.


Increased risk of low birth weight, muscle tremors, brain damage, and potential withdrawal symptoms.


Similar risks to those associated with cocaine

Alcohol Use During Pregnancy

Alcohol can be highly destructive to a fetus, whose liver is not fully formed and thus cannot filter alcohol properly. It can cause a myriad of developmental problems that can have a major impact on the child’s life that can severely affect their learning abilities and lifespan.

The effects are known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), and they include a group of disorders that are all related to a mother’s alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Signs of FASD include abnormal facial features, low birth weight, small head size, feeding problems, and central nervous system problems.

There are no cures for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Symptoms can be treated, but there is no way to reverse damage caused by a mother’s alcohol use during pregnancy.

The severity of the problems will be influenced by how much and how long a mother drinks. If a pregnant woman struggles with alcohol abuse, prompt treatment can help to mitigate the damage to the baby.

Abusing drugs while pregnant can affect your parental rights in the following states, as well as the District of Columbia:

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Nevada
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

The exact nature of how these states laws and policies differ. The general idea of such policies is that drug use while pregnant may be taken as a sign the person in question in unfit to be a parent.

Some states, including Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Rhode Island, are more strict with such policies. They require health care providers to test and report prenatal drug use.

Some states have programs in place that may require pregnant women who are found to be abusing drugs to go into inpatient substance abuse treatment. The idea of such policies is that the safety of the developing fetus, especially considering the risk of drug use, is more important than the parent’s autonomy.

Again, these laws vary by state. For example, it is a criminal offense in Tennessee to abuse drugs while pregnant.

There is a strong argument to be made that these laws are the wrong approach, making women struggling with drugs less likely to seek help from doctors during their pregnancies. In most instances, treatment facilities are ready and willing to help pregnant women who are struggling with addiction without reporting them to legal entities.

The goal of addiction treatment professionals is to ensure the safety of both mother and baby.

Pregnant woman drinking alcohol and smoking a cigarette

“There are various public organizations, on both a state and federal level, dedicated to helping pregnant women who are struggling with addiction.

Usually, pregnant women take priority over others who are waiting for public addiction treatment. Many nonprofits also help pregnant women who need rehab and housing assistance.”

Finding the Right Program

Not all substance abuse treatment centers are equipped to help women who are pregnant and struggling with addiction. Pregnancy presents a more complex medical situation that must be monitored, particularly during withdrawal. If the addiction treatment center you choose is not equipped to treat a pregnant woman medically, they should refer you to an appropriate medical facility.

Once you have found a facility equipped to meet your needs, understand that while the process probably won’t be easy, it is what is best for your developing child and you. Beating addiction will impact more than just your child’s health. The program will teach you many ways to resist drug cravings and build a positive network to help you live a healthy life in sobriety.

Getting treatment will increase your child’s odds of being born healthy. Continuing that journey once they are born will further help you be a good parent.

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