Illicit Drugs and Preterm Birth

November is National Prematurity Awareness Month

Approximately four percent of pregnant women in the United States use illicit drugs while they are pregnant, and it poses significant risks for the fetus.[1] Many are born too soon and too small, have withdrawal symptoms, birth defects, or learning and behavioral problems.1 Treatment for illicit drug use while pregnant is possible.1

pretermMarijuana is the most frequently used illicit drug among women of childbearing age.1 This drug slows fetal growth and can slightly decrease the length of pregnancy, putting the fetus at risk of premature birth.1 Oftentimes, these effects are seen mainly in women who use marijuana six or more times a week.1 After delivery, many babies go through withdrawal, crying and trembling excessively.1 The baby will have difficulty adjusting to changes in their environment and are more sensitive to stimulation.1 Their sleep habits are usually poor.1

Fetuses of women who use ecstasy, amphetamines, or methamphetamines are three times as likely to grow poorly before birth.1 These drugs also increase the risk of pregnancy complications, such as premature birth and placental problems.1 Most are born with a low birth weight of less than 5.5 pounds.1 Birth defects include heart defects and cleft lip/palate.1 Using these drugs during pregnancy can increase the risk of the baby undergoing withdrawal symptoms at birth, with drowsiness and breathing problems.1

Most babies born to mothers who use heroin are premature, and some are stillborn.1 Those who survive also suffer from many serious health problems as a newborn, including breathing problems, low birth weight, and heroin withdrawal symptoms.1 Withdrawal is very painful for newborns, and includes fever, trembling, diarrhea, vomiting, continuous crying, and seizures.1 The longer the baby was exposed in the womb, the more severe the withdrawal.1 They are also at an increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).1 If the mother injected the heroin, it puts the fetus at risk of developing HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C before birth.1

Cocaine use increases the risk of miscarriage in the early months of pregnancy.1 Later on, it can trigger preterm labor or slow fetal growth.1 Cocaine use during pregnancy can cause placental problems, including placental abruption, where the placenta pulls away from the wall of the uterus before labor begins.1 This can be life threatening for the mother and the baby.1 Cocaine can also put the unborn baby at risk of a stroke in the womb, causing irreversible brain damage.1 Babies exposed to cocaine in the womb are also more likely to die of SIDS.1

Using inhalants during pregnancy causes liver, kidney, and brain damage to both the mother and the fetus.1 It also contributes to miscarriage, slow fetal growth, preterm birth, and birth defects.1

It is never safe for the mother to stop using drugs on her own—professional help is needed to assure the safety of both her and her fetus.1 Treatment early enough can help stop preterm birth and other devastating effects.1

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