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Smoking, Alcohol, and Drugs Can Harm Your Baby

UPMC Content 2

As an expectant mother, you want your baby to be healthy. You can help by remembering that much of what you eat, drink, and breathe is passed along to your growing baby. Some things are good for your baby. Other things, like alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, and some medicines, can be harmful.

A baby receives food and oxygen through the placenta, which is attached to the baby’s umbilical cord. The placenta can’t tell the difference between what is good for your baby and what is harmful. That’s why you must make good choices.

Here is some information to help you understand how your health and habits can affect your unborn child.

Smoking and Pregnancy

The Surgeon General’s warning: “Smoking by pregnant women may result in fetal injury, premature birth, and low birth weight,” now appears on cigarette packs for good reason. Pregnant smokers have a higher chance of miscarriage and stillbirth. Babies of smoking mothers have a higher chance of being born early and too small. Low-birth-weight babies (less than 5 ½ pounds) can suffer serious health problems throughout their lives.

Tobacco smoke contains nicotine, arsenic, various tar products, and carbon monoxide. All of these are damaging to the body, and all of them can reach the baby through the placenta. For example, nicotine causes problems with the flow of blood through the blood vessels. Smoking during pregnancy may limit blood flow through the placenta and thus slow the baby’s growth.

Some pregnant women think that their babies are safe from these dangers because they do not inhale when they smoke. But tobacco smoke is absorbed through the mucous membranes of the mother’s mouth and throat. Although it may be less dangerous than inhaling, the body still absorbs harmful elements, and so does the baby.

Even non-smoking mothers and their babies are at risk when breathing smoke-filled air around them (second-hand smoke). Research also shows that babies exposed to smoke are twice as likely to die from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Smoking is a proven health hazard. Smokers decide to risk their health. Unborn babies don’t have the choice. Please make the right choice for your baby. Don’t smoke.

Alcohol and Pregnancy

When you eat or drink, so does your baby. Food and drink quickly enter your baby’s bloodstream through the placenta. It is important to drink a good amount of milk, water, and fruit juices to help your baby grow.

Just as these nutritious liquids reach your baby, so does alcohol. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). FAS is a group of mental and physical defects that may include:

  • Intellectual disability
  • Heart defects
  • Cleft palate
  • Defects of the face, fingers, arms, and legs

Children with FAS often are hyperactive and have limited attention spans. FAS children can suffer lifelong illness because of their mother’s use of alcohol.

Many pregnant women wonder if 1 or 2 drinks will harm their baby. Alcohol affects everyone differently. The alcohol the mother drinks is shared with her baby. The more she drinks, the more the baby receives, increasing the chance of serious problems. Medical experts have not been able to determine a safe amount of alcohol. Therefore, to protect your baby from alcohol-related danger, you should not drink any alcohol.

Drinking during the first 3 months of pregnancy is particularly dangerous. This is the most important time for the baby’s organs (including the brain, heart, and lungs) to grow. For this reason, you should stop alcohol use if you are planning to become pregnant. Several weeks may pass before you know you are pregnant. Don’t take the chance of drinking during a very important time in your baby’s development.

Drugs and Pregnancy

The average medicine cabinet has cold tablets, aspirin, allergy pills, and other over-the-counter medicine, as well as prescription drugs. Before you became pregnant, you may not have thought twice about taking something when you didn’t feel well. You must remember now that the medicine you take can affect your baby.

Because some medicines can harm your baby, you should ask your doctor before you take any medicine, dietary supplement, or herbals. Don’t take a chance with your baby’s health.

Below is information about some commonly used drugs:

  • Aspirin — This drug can be harmful, especially when large amounts are taken in late pregnancy. Both mother and baby may experience abnormal bleeding during delivery. Acetaminaphen (Tylenol®) is usually recommended instead.
  • Tranquilizers — An increased chance of cleft palate or cleft lip has been linked to some
  • Caffeine — Although not usually thought of as a drug, this ingredient found in coffee, tea, chocolate, cola, and some pain medicines has caused birth defects in animals. While there is no proof that caffeine is harmful to humans, many doctors recommend no more than 2 to 3 servings of caffeine a day.
  • Vitamins — Take only what your doctor tells you to. Large doses of some vitamins, such as Vitamin A, can cause birth defects.

Illegal Drugs and Pregnancy

If you abuse drugs, you are taking a chance with your health and the health of your baby. Babies born to mothers using street drugs often are born smaller and too early. And they tend to have behavioral problems such as hyperactivity.
  • Marijuana — To get the full effect of marijuana, smokers inhale deeply and hold
    the smoke in the lungs as long as possible. There are many harmful gases in the smoke that are passed along to the baby. Marijuana may slow the baby’s growth. After the baby is born, breathing marijuana smoke can make the baby sick. The baby can have breathing problems and catch colds and other illnesses more easily than other children can.
  • Cocaine/Crack — Cocaine can cause many problems for your baby before and after
    birth. There is a higher risk of miscarriage and stillbirth. Babies born to women who
    abuse cocaine may be difficult to comfort and have feeding problems. They can
    require special care. Sometimes, they can have blood circulation problems and brain damage. Long-term behavioral problems may also result from use of this drug.
  • Heroin — If you are a heroin addict, your baby probably will be born addicted and will
    need special care and medicine as he or she goes through withdrawal. If you use heroin, your baby is at higher risk for premature birth and poor growth.

Other street drugs such as speed (amphetamines), LSD, hashish, uppers, and downers also can cause problems with your baby’s growth and health. Mothers with addiction problems may not have good nutrition and health care, causing more problems for their babies.

Help is Available

If you have a problem with alcohol or drug use, please seek help before becoming pregnant. If you are pregnant now, seek help as soon as possible. Don’t allow your baby to suffer because of your problems. Help is available for any drug or alcohol problem at hospitals and chemical dependency centers. Call United Way’s help line in your county, or call 412-255-1155 any time of the day or night for information about your county agency.

If you are breastfeeding, check with your pharmacist, doctor, or nurse before you take anything. Alcohol and some medicines and drugs have been found in mother’s milk.

If you have questions about how a drug (over-the-counter, prescription, or illegal) or any other substance affects pregnancy, talk with your doctor, or call the UPMC Center for Medical Genetics at 412-641-4168. For additional pregnancy-related information, visit UPMC's Healthy Pregnancy Guide.

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