Pregnant women who abuse substances regularly are likely to have children who struggle with addiction after birth. This may lead to neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), the experience of withdrawal in newborns, which can include risks like seizures that may threaten the child’s life. Babies who are born addicted to substances are also at risk for long-term health problems, ranging from birth defects to mental or emotional problems in adulthood. Smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, abusing opioids, and even drinking caffeine can affect fetal development.

The 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that 5.4 percent of pregnant women, ages 18-44, struggled with alcohol abuse in their first trimester, 4.8 percent in their second trimester, and 2.4 percent in their third trimester. Similar percentages were found to abuse marijuana and cigarettes. Some prescription medications, from opioid painkillers to antidepressants, can affect fetal development, too. It is important for a woman who is pregnant or who wants to become pregnant to discuss prescriptions with her physician.

Physical Health Problems
  • Babies whose mothers struggle with opioid abuse, cocaine addiction, alcohol use disorder, tobacco use, and other addictive drugs are at risk of birth problems like:
    • Premature birth
    • Low birth weight
    • Trouble gaining weight due to feeding problems
    • Stillborn
  • Children struggling with NAS after being born may suffer acute problems like:
    • Respiratory failure
    • Heart attack
    • Seizure
    • Strokes

If the child survives these health issues, they may struggle with lung, heart, brain, and other organ problems as they grow. As they get older, children whose mothers abused drugs while pregnant may suffer ongoing heart, lung, kidney, brain, or bowel problems. Some stimulants like amphetamine (found in Adderall or ecstasy) and methamphetamines can cause congenital heart defects, cleft palate or lip, or club foot. There may also be other musculoskeletal abnormalities associated with MDMA, Molly, or amphetamine abuse. Cocaine exposure harms urinary tract development and is associated with other serious physical malformations. Women who smoke are more likely to have babies with a cleft palate. These infants are at greater risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Most children who were exposed to drugs in the womb will have lower weights throughout their lives, are more likely to be shorter in stature, and suffer other kinds of growth retardation. Tobacco exposure is one of the numerous drugs that causes low birth weight.

Emotional and Behavioral Problems

Substances like marijuana and other addictive drugs are associated with mental and behavioral disorders in children, such as issues with:

  • Memory, including working memory
  • Attentiveness
  • Cognitive difficulties
  • Self-regulation and control
  • Mental flexibility
  • Brain structure changes that make learning and thinking more difficult

Newborns whose mothers struggled with alcohol use disorder (AUD) or excessive alcohol abuse are likely to have a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), including fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). These conditions have some physical symptoms, including small, wide-set eyes, but the primary symptoms of FASDs are behavioral and learning disorders. Children with an FASD are also more likely to have hearing and vision problems.

Infants exposed to marijuana will likely suffer sleep disturbances from birth through 3 years old on average. As they grow, these children will struggle with social cues and academics; they will have a harder time with verbal acquisition, short-term memory, and visual skills. They are more likely to struggle with social isolation, increased irritability, and greater anxiety.

Babies born after exposure to cocaine or crack cocaine are more likely to struggle with language acquisition, so they will have a harder time speaking, understanding conversation, and will likely begin speaking later in life.

Children exposed to heroin or other potent opioids in utero may develop learning disorders later in life. Those exposed to cocaine abuse may also suffer cognitive delays as they grow. Around 5 years old, children who are exposed to methamphetamines are more likely to develop behavioral problems, which leads to struggles with peers and academics when they enter school.

Smoking cigarettes or vaping tobacco can increases the child’s risk of developing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a chronic behavioral disorder that persists throughout childhood and often into adulthood.

Long-Term Relationships

There are several complex reasons that a person will develop a mental illness or addictive disorder, but one of the risk factors is family history. Those with a close family member who struggles with addiction or mental illness are themselves more likely to develop a substance abuse problem. This condition can affect their ability to keep a job, maintain healthy relationships, and manage other kinds of life.

Women who struggle with substance abuse must get help if they are pregnant or wish to become pregnant. Detox and rehabilitation programs that focus on female-specific treatment may have more resources devoted to safe detox, childcare, and family therapy as well as other needs that are specific to new mothers.