Drug Addiction and Child Development

Vilma Ruddock
Doctor comforting worried young pregnant woman

A pregnant woman's drug addiction can adversely affect the development of her fetus and cause problems after birth. The addictive drugs a mother uses during the prenatal period are extremely dangerous for a baby and can cause serious and long-term developmental delays.

Drug Addiction Consequences for Child Development

Multiple addictive substances are toxic to a fetus if their use continues during pregnancy, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Important facts to consider include:

  • The adverse effects of a drug on the development of the fetal brain and other organ systems can continue after birth and cause delays in childhood and persistent physical, mental, social, behavioral, and intellectual development.
  • The drugs can also interfere with the health of the mother and her pregnancy, including an increased risk for miscarriages, preterm births, and stillbirths.
  • In addition, a mother's continued substance addiction after pregnancy can also adversely affect the physical and psychological well-being, safety, and life of her child, according to a Harvard study.
  • These drugs can also pass into breast milk and might affect a breast-feeding child's progress.

According to a 2016 review, tobacco is the most abused substance in pregnancy followed by alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and other illicit drugs, and prescription opioids.

Nicotine Addiction

pregnant woman putting out cigarette

Cigarette smoking is the most abused substance during pregnancy. According to the CDC, smoking tobacco during pregnancy and second hand smoke increases the risk for problems that can have long-term adverse developmental consequences:

  • Premature rupture of membranes
  • Preterm birth
  • Low birth weight
  • Birth defects including cleft lip and palate

Fetal exposure to nicotine and other toxins in tobacco also increases the risk for physical and cognitive developmental delays in childhood. Mothers who smoke also have a greater risk for stillbirths.

Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol is the second most common abused substance during pregnancy. Alcohol can cause adverse effects on fetal development that will leave a child with life long disabilities and incapable of a normal life.

The severity of the adverse effects is worse if a mother drinks during the first trimester and depends how much and how frequently she drinks. However, even small amounts of alcohol can affect a fetus at any point throughout pregnancy. According to the March of Dimes, alcohol can increase the risk for

  • Low birth weight
  • Mental retardation because of the effects on the fetal brain
  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs): The severest form of FASD is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which includes:
    • Abnormal facial features
    • Small head size
    • Slow growth of the fetus and child
    • Behavioral problems and deficits in motor, intellectual, learning, and social skills after birth

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in areas of the United States, about 0.2 to 1.5 babies out or every 1,000 live births have FAS. There is also a greater risk for miscarriages and stillbirths among mothers who drink.

Marijuana Addiction

Marijuana abuse is the third most common drug problem during pregnancy. Toxins in marijuana decrease oxygen supply to the fetus, which affects his growth and organ development. In addition, your joint might be laced with other unknown toxic substances, such as pesticides and microorganisms which can harm your baby.

Even a small amount of weed can affect fetal development. Babies affected in the womb by cannabis abuse are at greater risk for the following:

  • Stunted fetal growth leading to low weight at birth
  • Poor growth of the fetal brain
  • Shorter body measurements and smaller heads
  • Breathing problems and asthma after birth
  • Restlessness and anxiety
  • Long-term learning difficulties and behavioral problems

It is hard to sort out the problems caused by weed alone because many users also smoke tobacco or overuse alcohol. It is also important to know that many sources grow their marijuana to be more potent today than in previous years.

Cocaine Addiction

Cocaine is the fourth most common drug abused in pregnancy. Exposure of the fetus to cocaine increases the risk for:

  • Preterm labor and birth before 37 weeks
  • Low birth weight
  • Withdrawal symptoms at birth including tremors and problems with feeding that might lead to abnormal child development
  • Symptoms of attention deficit disorder and other behavioral problems
  • Problems with childhood physical and cognitive and language development and learning

It is not certain if cocaine causes birth defects. If so, the risk appears to be small. There is a possible link between the drug and defects in areas such as the brain, the head and face, the heart and lungs, the bowels, and the reproductive and urinary tracts. These problems are more likely to cause lifelong physical and learning deficits.

Addiction to Methamphetamine

Like cocaine, methamphetamine ("meth") is a stimulant. It can decrease oxygen supply to the fetus and therefore affect the brain. The following are reported fetal and childhood effects:

  • Miscarriages, preterm birth, and low birth weight
  • Impaired fetal brain development leading to long-term developmental delays and behavioral and learning disabilities in children
  • Withdrawal symptoms at birth including irritability and sensitivity to light and touch, and difficulty with suckling from breast or bottle can also cause problems with weight gain and physical and cognitive development

It is estimated that about one percent of pregnant women in the United States use amphetamines.

Opioid Addiction

Pregnant woman holding pills in hand

Illicit street opioids (narcotics) such as heroin and prescription opioids, such as Vicodin and Oxycontin, easily cross the placenta to the fetus. These potent drugs can impair development of the fetal brain and other organs. They have a long-term negative impact on a child's behavior, speech, language, learning, and psychosocial skills.

Other effects on the fetus that can cause developmental delays include:

  • Preterm labor and preterm birth
  • Low birth weight
  • Problems with the function of the placenta which causes decreased oxygen and nutrient supply
  • Slow growth and small head size (microcephaly)
  • Birth defects including of the heart and spine and a risk for cleft palate, clubfoot and other limb abnormalities
  • Opioid dependence or addiction in the fetus: After birth, a newborn can develop neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) once he withdraws from his mother's source of opioids. Irritability and difficulty sleeping and feeding can cause long-lasting problems with weight gain and development of the newborn

Treatment with methadone or buprenorphine can help you safely stop using your opioid of choice during pregnancy and reduce the chance of a poor fetal outcome at birth and the long-term consequences.

Addiction to Hallucinogens

These drugs include LSD and PCP. During a hallucinogenic trip a woman might inadvertently do something that hurt her fetus. According to American Pregnancy abuse of the drugs during pregnancy can also cause:

  • Low birth weight
  • Brain damage
  • Poor muscle control and motor skills
  • Developmental delays and learning problems

Benzodiazepine Addiction

There is no clear evidence that benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and Valium, cause birth defects or persistent developmental impairments. The effects on a fetus appear to be mainly in the third trimester and seems to be short-lived. Some newborns might be floppy at birth, have difficulty feeding, and lag a little in growth, but most children catch up to their peers by age four.

Get Help

If you use even a small amount of some drugs during your pregnancy, they can have significant effects on your fetus. This can lead to long-term developmental problems and reduce the quality of life for your child. Talk to your doctor if you have a drug addiction problem. It is best to get help to treat your substance addiction before you get pregnant.

Was this page useful?
Drug Addiction and Child Development