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Pregnancy and Drug Use

How do drugs effect a baby? Drugs, along with other teratogens , can be harmful to a developing foetus throughout the pregnancy but the first three months is considered the time of most risk because the major organs and limbs of the baby are forming ( organogenesis ).
All drugs taken during pregnancy will reach the baby through the placenta , however there is an enormous variation in babies' responses to these drugs. The variation in response to drugs depends on the following factors:

  1. The actual nature of the drug, whether the drug is a sedative (for example, benzodiazepines ), or a stimulant (for example, amphetamines).
  2. How often the drug is used and the dose taken.
  3. Whether one or more drugs are used. Some drugs have a cumulative or combined action which is more likely to be harmful for the baby.
  4. Each baby, for reasons that are not clear, seems to have its own response to different drugs. Mothers can use the same drugs in the same amount for the same duration or length of a pregnancy, and the babies can react differently. There appears to be something in each individual baby which allows this to occur. [ 3 ]

The first major study on drug use during pregnancy estimated that more than 5% of the 4 million women who gave birth in the United States in 1992 used illegal drugs (such as marijuana and cocaine ) while they were pregnant. [ 2 ]

What are the results of drug exposure? A common complication in pregnancy, where the mother has been taking drugs or alcohol , is an increased incidence of premature labour , with babies often arriving more than six weeks early. Overall, babies born to mothers who are using drugs or alcohol are smaller than the average baby . Low birth weight babies often have breathing difficulties and are more vulnerable to infections. During a pregnancy where the mother has been using alcohol or other drugs, the baby needs to be carefully monitored at ante-natal visits. This is done by using ultrasound to check the baby's growth and other tests to check that the placenta continues to work well. [ 3 ]

The main drugs known to interfere with prenatal development include:

Anticancer Drugs Heart Condition Drugs Social Drugs

The U.S. Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) divides drugs into different categories, depending on the risk they pose to the mother-to-be and the child she is carrying. Click here for details. [ 1 ]

The information in this page is presented in summarised form and has been taken from the following source(s):
1. U.S. Federal Food and Drug Administration Online:
2. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
3. Australian Drug Foundation, Alcohol, Other Drugs and pregnancy:

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Contact Last modified: Oct 21 2004