Illegal drugs and pregnancy

If you have been taking illegal drugs before you became pregnant, it can be really tough to stop.

If you have been taking illegal drugs before you became pregnant, it can be really tough to stop. However, it may also be unsafe to stop taking them suddenly, so it is really important to speak to your doctor or midwife so you can get the help you need.

For some women, telling health professionals about drug use can be really difficult. Fear of their reaction, worry about the involvement of social services, anxiety and guilt about the impact of drugs on the baby can sometimes make it easier to avoid thinking about it at all. However, support from a professional will help you.

Pregnancy is a chance to change unsafe habits, so even if you are near the end of your pregnancy, you can still really help your baby if you are able to cut down or stop altogether. 

What support can I get?

If you tell your midwife or doctor, there is plenty of support that can be put in to place to help you. 

Firstly you can talk through what you are taking, how often and how you feel about this. You should then be offered a referral to a specialist midwife or doctor in your pregnancy who can give you dedicated advice and offer you regular appointments. They will also be able to tell you about local services that could also help.

They will talk with you about your antenatal care, any extra appointments or scans that may be needed, as well as any additional support your baby may need when they are born. You can ask for text message reminders and other practical help with getting to your appointments, such as transport.

You should be able to talk about your feelings and worries, and your healthcare team will work with you to support you to have as healthy a pregnancy as possible.

How do drugs affect a baby?

If you use illegal drugs it is important to know how they can affect your pregnancy and your baby.

Cannabis (marijuana, dope, weed, skunk, grass, hash etc.)

Experts don’t know exactly what harm cannabis causes during pregnancy because it is often used with other drugs, such as tobacco and alcohol, so it’s difficult to separate the effects. The combination can cause growth restriction (your baby not growing properly), baby being born too early (prematurely) and having breathing and feeding problems when born.

New psychoactive substances (so-called ‘legal highs’) such as MCAT

So-called ‘legal highs’ (they are not legal) are drugs that are created chemically. As they are relatively new, there is very little research about them and their effects in pregnancy. It is thought that they have effects similar to that of ecstasy and crack cocaine.

Cocaine and speed

Cocaine (including crack cocaine) and methamphetamine (speed, or ice) are powerful stimulants that effect the central nervous system.

Using these drugs during pregnancy may affect your baby’s growth and puts you at higher risk of miscarriage, early labour, and placental abruption, where the placenta comes away from the wall of the womb, causing bleeding and potentially serious problems for you and your baby.

These drugs also cross the placenta and are absorbed by the baby. They reach the baby’s heart, brain and other organs.

If these drugs are taken late in pregnancy, your baby may be born with these in their system and have to go through withdrawal after birth. Shaking, muscle spasms and problems with sleeping and feeding are all signs that your baby is coming off these drugs.

Ecstasy (MDMA)

Ecstasy is absorbed into the bloodstream and is transferred across the placenta to the baby. One study has shown that heavy MDMA use in pregnancy is associated with poorer mental and motor development in infants at 12 months old. There is also some evidence to suggest that it can lead to an increase risk of baby having birth defects. However, this is limited research and we do not know for sure.

Benzodiazepines eg. Valium, Xanax

These are usually used for short term relief of severe anxiety but are often addictive. If taken regularly in pregnancy then they can result in your baby:

  • having withdrawal symptoms when born, such as seizures
  • not as able to regulate their temperature (being cold)
  • having breathing problems.

Heroin and methadone

Whether heroin is smoked or injected, it still enters the bloodstream and  crosses over to your baby.

It is difficult to show the exclusive effect that heroin can have, without including other lifestyle factors.

What we do know is there is a link to reduced growth of baby, as well as the baby suffering from withdrawal symptoms when born which can range from mild to life-threatening. Such symptoms can include sleep problems, irritability, seizures, tremors and problems feeding.

Women who inject heroin or other drugs may become infected with viruses such as HIV or Hepatitis B or C from dirty needles, and risk passing the virus on to their babies.

Methadone use usually results in more minor withdrawal symptoms in babies once they are born and is a more stable drug. It is regulated, which means there is more certainty as to what is in it.

Information about smoking in pregnancy

Sources

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Last reviewed on March 22nd, 2018. Next review date March 22nd, 2021.

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