Drug Abuse and the Devastating Birth Defects It May Cause


It’s tragic every time a person loses their health and sobriety to drug addiction. But it is much more tragic when a tiny baby is born with impairments as a result of its exposure to those drugs. They may suffer their whole lives, and they may even lose their lives as a consequence.

When a woman is pregnant, her baby is exposed to the same drugs she is. This makes it utterly essential to ensure that any woman who is or could be pregnant gets the support she needs to stop drinking or using drugs. Many drugs also make their way into a mother’s milk. If she is nursing, therefore, the need for recovery is equally important.

Helping a woman of child-bearing age recover from addiction as soon as possible is vital to preserve her health and ensure that her pregnancies result in healthy children who can reach their full potential. If a woman is already pregnant and is still using drugs, it is equally vital to get her the medical care and supervision she needs to cease using drugs safely.

Information on what disabilities or deformities may result from the use of alcohol or various drugs may help women of child-bearing years make the choice to maintain their sobriety.


Years ago, there were no restrictions on pregnant women drinking. It is now known that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. The severity of effects depends on when during the pregnancy the alcohol was consumed and how much was consumed.

Over time, we have learned that alcohol creates the following changes in the exposed child:

  • Lower birth weight
  • More prematurity
  • Greater likelihood of aggressive and anxious behavior
  • Gastroschisis (abnormal opening in the abdomen)

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), is a well-known outcome of exposure to alcohol during gestation. FASD is composed of a group of conditions that result from this prenatal exposure to alcohol. Many symptoms fit into this classification.

  • Small head
  • Abnormal facial features
  • Short height
  • Low body weight
  • Poor coordination
  • Hyperactivity
  • Learning problems
  • Speech delays
  • Reduced IQ
  • Poor judgment skills and reasoning
  • Vision problems
  • Hearing problems
  • Deformities of the heart, kidneys or bones

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a subset of FASD. Babies with this disorder manifest facial abnormalities like wide-set and narrow eyes, nervous system abnormalities and slowed growth. They may also suffer from learning, communication or memory problems that can be severe.

The problems resulting from FASD and FAS last a lifetime. There may be help for symptoms but there is no cure.


Cocaine use during pregnancy is not only hard on the baby, but it is also hard on the mother. When a pregnant woman uses cocaine, she is at high risk for complications like these:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart attack
  • Kidney failure
  • Cerebral ischemia
  • Death (even small doses can lead to heart problems or death)
  • Miscarriage
  • Stillbirth
  • Uterine rupture

Cocaine and other stimulants cause a constriction of the blood vessels, including those that lead to the developing baby. This can lead to the baby receiving too little nutrition or oxygen.

For the baby, these are the possible outcomes.

  • Preterm delivery
  • Low birth weight
  • Intestinal obstruction
  • Failure of complete limb development

Heroin, Fentanyl and Prescription Opioids

Prenatal exposure to opioids can occur if a mother is taking pain relievers prescribed by her doctor or if she is consuming illicit drugs. The risks are great for harm to her baby if she continues while pregnant.

  • Congenital heart defects
  • Spina bifida
  • Gastroschisis
  • Facial clefts
  • Greater risk of autism
  • Anencephaly (lack of development of the brain and skull)


Abuse of inhalants most commonly occurs among younger people. There are so many abusable substances in the typical household, it is difficult to prevent this type of substance abuse if a person wants to do it. Types of inhalants include spray paint, gasoline, paint thinner, white correction fluid, markers, spray deodorant, air fresheners and hundreds of other items.

The exact effect on a fetus can depend on the chemical inhaled. But symptoms may include the following:

  • Smaller size at birth
  • Low weight
  • Anxiety
  • Problems with joints and limbs
  • Abnormal facial features
  • Heart problems


Whatever form of cannabis is consumed—herbal products, edibles or concentrates—the effects on the fetus are the same. THC passes through the placental barrier and is secreted in breast milk so nursing babies are also exposed during a time of rapid growth and development.

Research has shown that the following problems occur more frequently when cannabis products are used during pregnancy:

  • Impaired fetal growth
  • Increase in exaggerated startles and tremors in newborns
  • Increased irritability and excitability
  • Learning disabilities
  • Memory impairment
  • Attention, social and behavioral problems (first-trimester exposure)
  • Reduced cortical gray matter in the brain
  • Reduced executive function
  • Sleep problems

One report from Colorado noted that the incidence of several birth defects increased faster than the birth rate, but kept pace with increases in cannabis use. These defects were atrial septal defect; spina bifida; microcephalus (abnormally small head); Down’s syndrome; ventricular septal defect; and central nervous system, cardiovascular, genitourinary, respiratory, chromosomal, and musculoskeletal defects. It may take time and further research to definitely associate these problems with cannabis.


This is a type of amphetamine that is often used at dance venues and music festivals. Use during pregnancy is associated with the following problems in the baby:

  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Musculoskeletal malformations
  • Gastroschisis


Like cocaine, methamphetamine is a strong stimulant that causes blood vessels to contract. Methamphetamine also introduces toxic chemicals into the mother’s body.

Effects of methamphetamine exposure to an unborn child include:

  • Premature delivery
  • Small size
  • Lethargy
  • Heart and brain abnormalities
  • Decreased response to stimuli
  • Poor movement
  • Delayed motor ability (toddlers)
  • Attention impairments (preschoolers and school-age children)
  • Behavioral issues including difficulty with self-control and executive function (preschoolers and school-age children)

Protecting the Health of Mothers and the Next Generation

mother and baby

Drug abuse is, of course, harmful and dangerous for anyone. But the harm that can be caused by drug or alcohol abuse during pregnancy can last the entirety of the baby’s life. Protecting our next generation means that we must discourage drug or alcohol use by women of child-bearing age because many women may not realize they are pregnant for several weeks.

Avoidance of drugs and alcohol is also important for a women who plans to get pregnant as it can take quite a while for intoxicants to fully clear a women’s body. Health experts recommend that a woman avoid drugs or alcohol for three months before a planned pregnancy.

Drug prevention efforts should pay special attention to young women who may not know the possible devastating effects of drug or alcohol abuse during pregnancy.


  • PubMed. “Prenatal alcohol exposure and childhood behavior at age 6 to 7 years: I. dose-response effect.” PubMed, 2001. PubMed
  • MedlinePlus. “Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.” MedlinePlus, 2022. MedlinePlus
  • National Library of Medicine. “Stimulant Use in Pregnancy—an under-recognized epidemic among pregnant women.” NLM, 2019. NLM
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Prenatal Opioid and Substance Exposure.” CDC, 2021. CDC
  • Los Angeles County. “Drugs and Pregnancy.” Los Angeles County, 2000. Los Angeles County
  • National Library of Medicine. “Lasting impacts of prenatal cannabis exposure and the role of endogenous cannabinoids in the developing brain.” NML, 2011. NLM
  • National Institutes of Health. “Prenatal cannabis exposure associated with mental disorders in children that persist into early adolescence.” NIH, 2022. NIH
  • JAMA Network. “Associations Between Prenatal Cannabis Exposure and Childhood Outcomes.” JAMA Network, 2020. JAMANetwork
  • PubMed. “Cannabis Teratology Explains Current Patterns of Coloradan Congenital Defects: The Contribution of Increased Cannabinoid Exposure to Rising Teratological Trends.” PubMed, 2019. PubMed
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Methamphetamine Research Report.” NIDA, 2019. NIDA


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.