Tests & Procedures



Illegal Drug Use and Pregnancy

Did You Know?

Pregnant women who use drugs such as heroin, cocaine, marijuana, PCP, methadone, and/or amphetamines may give birth to drug-addicted babies. Many of these babies experience withdrawal symptoms known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS).

Symptoms of NAS may include tremors; increased sensitivity to noise or other stimuli; feeding problems; poor coordination; or excessive crying and/or irritability.

Source: National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI)

The risks involved with illegal drug use during pregnancy:

The effects of illegal drugs, such as cocaine, can be devastating on a fetus. Unfortunately, many women of childbearing age in the US use some form of illegal drug.

A mother taking illegal drugs during pregnancy increases her risk for anemia, blood and heart infections, skin infections, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases. She also is at greater risk for sexually transmitted diseases. Almost every drug passes from the mother's blood stream through the placenta to the fetus. Illicit substances that cause drug dependence and addiction in the mother also cause the fetus to become addicted.

A laboratory test, called a chromatography, performed on a woman's urine can detect many illegal drugs, including marijuana and cocaine. Both marijuana and cocaine, as well as other illegal drugs, can cross the placenta. Marijuana use during pregnancy may be linked to behavioral problems in the baby. Cocaine use can lead to miscarriage, preterm delivery of the fetus, premature detachment of the placenta, high blood pressure, or stillbirth. Infants born to cocaine-using mothers are more likely to have low birthweight and may have an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The effects of cocaine on the fetus may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Growth defects
  • Intestinal abnormalities
  • Hyperactivity
  • Uncontrollable trembling
  • Learning problems

Dextroamphetamine and methamphetamine used illegally can cause miscarriage and preterm birth. Newborns exposed to these drugs in pregnancy often have signs of withdrawal, such as jitteriness and trouble sleeping and  feeding, as well as later problems with tremors and muscle tone. They may also be at higher risk for SIDS.

Heroin and other opiates, including methadone, can cause significant withdrawal in the baby, with some symptoms lasting as long as 4 to 6 months. Babies born to opiate-addicted mothers are at higher risk for apnea (stopping breathing) and SIDS, and also have feeding difficulties.

If a woman stops taking illegal drugs during her first trimester, she increases her chances of having a healthy baby.

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Online Resources of High-Risk Pregnancy

Last reviewed: 5/11/2013