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Making the Rounds: Drugs and pregnancy

Last Modified: 2/06/2020

According to a 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 5.4% of pregnant women, between the ages of 15 and 44, actively used illicit drugs at the time of the survey with around 9.4% reporting they were active users of alcohol. Lisa Bergeron, MD, PPG – Pediatric Development Care, Parkview Health, explains the impact drug use and prenatal drug exposure has on the development of an infant.

When it comes to the use of any type of illegal or legal drug during pregnancy, there is absolutely no minimum level that should be consumed. When we see any type of drug being taken by a pregnant mom, it can affect the development of that baby, at any time. We can see that the amount and number of drugs, as well as when they were taken during gestational age, have serious effects on the developing baby and can severely impact that infant’s life.

Forms of drugs

The most common types of drugs utilized by women during pregnancy are:

  • Nicotine
  • Alcohol
  • Marijuana
  • Opiates
  • Methamphetamines

All substances carry many harmful effects to an infant, both before and after birth.

We find that most of these drugs, except marijuana, affect fetal growth or the growth of the baby while in utero. After the baby is born, we find there are still traces of these drugs in the little ones’ systems. Unfortunately, these substances are affecting the neurobehavioral symptoms that you would see right after birth. For example, the babies are more irritable, difficult to soothe, have trouble feeding, have high tone or rigid muscles and ultimately have a hard time adapting to their environment which is a direct result of exposure to these drugs in utero.

Treating symptoms

After delivery, we try our best to calm these babies. Some by swaddling, others may need extra calories since they are expending a lot because of their irritability and fussiness. We try to keep them in a quiet environment, swaddled, close to mom if possible. That way, we can help to prevent more signs of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS).

However, symptoms may not appear until days after the baby is discharged from the hospital. Therefore, universal screenings for mother and baby are crucial. If a baby has prenatal drug exposure, was delivered vaginally and goes home in 48 hours, they could start to have withdrawal signs and symptoms at home. This could lead to more issues in which the baby may need further treatment. For this reason, it’s important to know, beforehand, if a baby has been exposed to drugs so we can take the appropriate measures regarding treatment.

It’s also common to see development issues in babies and children with prenatal drug exposure along with learning, ADHD and other behavioral problems in the future. Intervention services are important to assist with speech and language delays as well as special education help for those areas of cognition that are impacted. However, if we are in an environment that can recognize these things, it can help impact how that child does later, in a more positive direction. A hospital and community effort are the most effective ways to set up the mother and her baby for success.

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