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How Smoking, Alcohol, and Drugs Can Harm Your Baby


WRITTEN BY: Magee
Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

As an expectant mother, you want your baby to be healthy. One way you can help is to remember that you pass much of what you eat, drink, and breathe along to your growing baby.

Some things are good for your baby. Others — like alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, and some medicines — can be harmful.

A baby receives food and oxygen through the placenta attached to the 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.

The following will 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” — appears on cigarette packs for good reason.

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 slow your baby’s growth.

Other risks of smoking during pregnancy

  • 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.
  • Research shows that babies exposed to smoke are twice as likely to die from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Breathing secondhand smoke or not inhaling while smoking can still harm your baby

Some pregnant women think that their babies are safe from the dangers of cigarettes because they don’t inhale. This is not true. Although this practice may decrease the danger, harmful elements are still passed to your baby.

The mucous membranes of your mouth and throat absorb tobacco smoke, even if you don’t inhale.

Non-smoking mothers and their babies are also at risk when breathing smoke-filled air around them (secondhand smoke).

If you’re pregnant, quit smoking

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.

Need help getting started? Find your quit smoking method.

Alcohol and Pregnancy

When you eat or drink, so does your baby. Food and drink quickly enter your baby’s bloodstream through the placenta.

To help your baby grow, it’s vital to drink a good amount of:

  • Milk
  • Water
  • Fruit juices

Just as these healthy liquids reach your baby, so does alcohol.

Risks of drinking alcohol during pregnancy

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 — because of their mother’s alcohol use — often:

  • Are hyperactive
  • Have limited attention spans
  • Suffer lifelong illness and health problems

Even one or two drinks could have harmful effects on your unborn baby

Alcohol affects everyone differently.

Many pregnant women wonder if one or two drinks will harm their baby. Medical experts have not been able to decide on a safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy.

Doctors do know that drinking during the first three 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. Weeks may pass before you know you are pregnant.

Don’t take the chance of drinking during this crucial time in your baby’s development.

Even after the first trimester, keep in mind that you share the alcohol you drink with your baby.

The more you drink, the more the baby receives. This increases the chance of serious problems.

To protect your baby from alcohol-related danger, you should not drink any alcohol while you’re pregnant.

Follow these tips to quit drinking alcohol.

Over-the-Counter and Prescription Drugs During Pregnancy

The average medicine cabinet has cold tablets, aspirin, allergy pills, and other over-the-counter and 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 some medicines you take can harm your baby.

Ask your doctor before you take any medicine, dietary supplement, or herbals. Don’t take a chance with your baby’s health.

Below are some common drugs and the possible harmful effects they can have on your baby.

Aspirin

This drug can be harmful, especially when you take large amounts in late pregnancy. It can cause abnormal bleeding, in both you and your baby, during delivery.

Doctors usually suggest taking acetaminophen (Tylenol®) instead of aspirin.

Tranquilizers

Doctors have linked an increased chance of cleft palate or cleft lip to some tranquilizers.

Caffeine

Although you might not think of it as a drug, caffeine — found in coffee, tea, chocolate, cola, and some pain medicines — causes birth defects in animals.

While there’s no proof that caffeine is harmful to humans, many doctors say to limit your caffeine while pregnant to no more than two to three servings per day.

Vitamins

Only take the vitamins 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’re taking a chance with your health and the health of your baby.

Babies born to mothers using street drugs are often born too early and are smaller. They also 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. You pass these along to the baby.

Smoking marijuana while you’re pregnant may slow your baby’s growth.

After your baby is born, breathing marijuana smoke can make the baby sick. It can cause breathing problems and increase the risk of catching colds and other illnesses more easily.

Cocaine or Crack

Cocaine can cause many problems for your baby before and after birth.

There’s a higher risk of miscarriage and stillbirth.

Babies born to women who abuse cocaine can:

  • Be hard to comfort
  • Have feeding problems
  • Require special care

Other harmful effects cocaine can have on your baby include:

  • Blood circulation problems
  • Brain damage
  • Long-term behavioral health problems

Heroin

If you use heroin, your baby is at higher risk for premature birth and poor growth.

If you’re a heroin addict, your baby will probably be born addicted. Your baby will need special care and medicine as he or she goes through withdrawal.

Other street drugs

Other street drugs that can cause problems with your baby’s growth and health include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Speed (amphetamines)
  • LSD
  • Hashish
  • Uppers
  • Downers

Mothers with addiction problems may not have good nutrition and health care, causing more problems for their babies.

Get Help for You and Your Baby Today

If you have a problem with alcohol or drug use, please seek help before becoming pregnant. If you’re 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.

You can also find help by calling your county’s United Way help line. For information about your county United Way agency, call 412-255-1155 any time of the day or night.

If you’re breastfeeding, check with your pharmacist, doctor, or nurse before you take anything. Alcohol and some drugs can present 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, contact the UPMC Center for Medical Genetics and Genomics at 412-641-4168.

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Magee

For more than a century, women have depended on the expertise and compassion of Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC for the delivery and care of their babies. With a family-centered environment for labor, delivery, and recovery; innovative laboring options; world-renowned obstetricians; and one of the largest NICUs in the nation, why would you choose to go anywhere else? For more information about Magee’s childbirth services, visit UPMC.com/Magee, or call 1-866-MyMagee. Read More