Drugs and Pregnancy

There are particular risks involved in any drug use during pregnancy. Advice to all pregnant women is to avoid any drug use unless prescribed by a medical practitioner

The first trimester (up to 12 weeks) is the crucial period and it is vital that women seek antenatal care as soon as they find out they are pregnant. This is to discuss the care and support required with the drug use, whether using illicit drugs or prescribed medication by a medical practitioner. The physical and emotional welfare of mother and baby are paramount during this period. Pregnant women using drugs need understanding and support from all the professionals, taking full advantage of services available to improve their health and wellbeing and that of their unborn baby.

During pregnancy the placenta acts as a filter between the mothers’s and baby’s bloodstream, allowing tiny molecules to pass from the mother to baby whilst preventing larger particles from crossing. As drug molecules are relatively small, they can pass easily across the placenta and therefore can be passed over to the baby in the bloodstream. This may result in, depending on the drug use, development of the foetus with growth, low birth weight, developmental problems and possible withdrawals.

Any drug taken in pregnancy may have an effect on the foetus and the woman should discuss as soon as possible with professionals in regard on any drug use or prescribed medication to reduce any effect to the unborn. In the first trimester some drugs can affect the development of the foetal organs and in severe cases may cause miscarriage. In the second trimester (13-28 weeks) some drugs may reduce the baby’s growth, resulting in low birth weight which may have an impact on developmental problems, childhood illnesses, etc. In the third trimester (final three months), continuing to use drugs may cause prematurity and in some cases the baby may show signs of withdrawal.

Some babies may show signs of withdrawal within the first 72 hours and in some circumstances may continue for 14 days depending on drugs used in pregnancy. The signs may be uncoordinated sucking, vomiting and diarrhoea and poor weight gain and in rare cases, convulsions may occur. Babies will be monitored and treated as required whilst in hospital and the mothers supported by professionals.

Using some drugs can make breastfeeding unsafe for your baby. Talk to a health professional about how you can breastfeed safely. There is still a lot we don’t know about the effects of drugs on your baby when you are breastfeeding but it’s thought that, even at low levels, taking drugs is likely to: make your baby drowsy, feed poorly and have disturbed sleep patterns, poor weight gain and cause behavioural problems.

If you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all to keep risks to your baby to a minimum. Drinking in pregnancy can lead to long-term harm to the baby, with the more you drink, the greater the risk. There is a risk depending on how much you drink that if you stop abruptly you may experience withdrawals yourself and this may have an impact on the unborn. If you are drinking alcohol in pregnancy, contact your midwife or GP to discuss further any support you may require.

If You’re Pregnant Or Think You May Become Pregnant, You’re Also Advised Not To Drink. But Please Be Aware If You’re Already Pregnant And Drank Only Small Amounts Of Alcohol In The Early Stages Of Pregnancy, The Risk Of Harm To The Baby Is Low. However If You Are Worried, You Should Talk To Your GP Or Midwife.

Additional Advice That The Risks Of Miscarriage In The First Three Months Of Pregnancy Mean That It Is Particularly Important For Women Not To Drink Alcohol At All During That Period. However, It Is Important To Understand That Drinking Alcohol Carries Risk Throughout The Whole Pregnancy, Not Only For The First Three Months.

When you drink, alcohol passes from your bloodstream through the placenta directly into your baby’s blood. How a baby will be affected depends on how much the mother drinks and the mother’s metabolism. A baby’s liver is one of the last organs to develop and doesn’t mature until the later stages of pregnancy. Your baby cannot process alcohol as well as you can, and too much exposure to alcohol can seriously affect their development. Drinking alcohol, especially in the first three months of pregnancy, increases the risk of miscarriage, premature birth and your baby having a low birth weight. Drinking after the first three months of your pregnancy could affect your baby after they are born.

The more you drink the greater the risk you are taking with your baby’s health. Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) affects the way a baby’s brain develops and how serious the condition is depends on how much alcohol a mother drank during pregnancy. Miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, small birth weight, and Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) are all associated with a mother’s drinking.

Children with FAS have:

  • poor growth
  • facial abnormalities
  • learning and behavioural problems

Drinking less heavily, and even drinking heavily on single occasions, may be associated with lesser forms of FAS. The risk is likely to be greater the more you drink.

Though the use of alcohol by the mother before birth can cause serious long-term effects in her newborn, the infant may also be born with a dependence on alcohol. Alcohol withdrawal in a newborn produces seizures, increased muscle tone, exaggerated startle reflex, irritabillty and jitteriness.

Anything you eat or drink while you’re breastfeeding can find its way into your breast milk, and that includes alcohol. If you intend to have a drink of alcohol, then remember that one unit takes 2 hours to leave the breastmilk. Please ask your midwife or health visitor for advice on having an alcoholic drink whilst breastfeeding.

Please remember that Binge drinking, where you have more than five units of alcohol in one session, may make you less aware of your baby’s needs. Never share a bed or sofa with your baby if you have drunk any alcohol. Doing this has a strong association with sudden infant death syndrome.