Is it safe to take illegal drugs while I’m pregnant?
There’s a lot we don’t yet know about the exact effects of certain illegal drugs on unborn babies. But we do know about the harmful effects of other drugs. This is enough to make us sure that illegal drugs must always be considered unsafe, even in small amounts.
How do drugs affect my baby?
Drugs such as cannabis (marijuana), heroin and cocaine pass through the placenta to reach your baby.
Drugs in your body may reduce the amount of oxygen that can reach your baby. Early in pregnancy, some drugs may affect your baby’s development. Your baby may not grow as well as expected in your uterus (womb).
Taking illegal drugs may cause problems later on in your pregnancy, too, as they can affect how well the placenta works. There is a risk that the placenta may come away from the side of your uterus, sometimes causing severe bleeding. This is called placental abruption. Placental abruption is a serious condition and can be life-threatening for you and your baby.
Your baby may have withdrawal symptoms if you regularly take certain drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, during your pregnancy. Your baby may need to stay in hospital, so nurses and doctors can check him for signs of withdrawal. Some babies need to have painkilling medicines to help them cope with the withdrawal symptoms.
What if I took drugs before finding out I was pregnant?
We know many people take drugs as part of their social life. If you took a drug without realising you were pregnant on a one-off occasion, be reassured that it’s very unlikely to have affected your baby. However, if illegal drugs are part of your life, getting help can really improve the outlook for you and your baby.
Which drugs have which effects?
Here is what we know so far about the effects of illegal drugs:
Cannabis (marijuana) is the most widely used illegal drug. Many experts disagree about the effects of cannabis on an unborn baby, as the evidence is very mixed. These experts say more research is needed. However, it’s possible that taking cannabis during pregnancy could cause problems for your baby, including:
- being born with a low birth weight
- having learning problems as he grows older, as cannabis may have subtle effects on a baby’s developing brain
If you smoke cannabis you also expose your baby to the risks related to smoking. If you smoke, you are more likely to go into premature labour. There’s also a higher chance that your baby will be born with a low birth weight and other complications. Sometimes, smoking in pregnancy can even lead to a baby being stillborn.
Speed (amphetamines) and crystal meth (methamphetamine)
It’s best for your baby if you stop taking speed or crystal meth before you get pregnant. You can still quit if you are pregnant, but to be safe, you should stop taking these drugs with medical help in a drug treatment programme. Stopping suddenly could be harmful for you or your baby and could cause miscarriage.
Again, we don’t yet know enough about the effects of these drugs on unborn babies.
However, we do know that taking speed may make the following more likely:
- a complication where the placenta can’t carry enough oxygen and nutrients to your baby, called placental insufficiency
- the placenta separating from your uterus (placental abruption)
Crystal meth might be harmful to your baby’s growth and development in other ways, too. In some studies, it has been linked to:
- low birth weight
- premature birth
- heart problems in babies
Your baby may also have withdrawal symptoms if you take speed or crystal meth during pregnancy.
We have less information about the lasting effects of these drugs as your child grows up. But one study shows that children exposed to these drugs in the uterus may not develop and learn as well as other children their age.
There’s a lot of controversy about the long-term side-effects of taking ecstasy, but very little research on the way that ecstasy can affect your pregnancy or your baby. However, one study has shown that babies were much more likely to have limb and heart defects if their mums took ecstasy during pregnancy.
Cocaine and crack cocaine
Taking cocaine or crack during pregnancy may increase your risk of having a miscarriage, and of placental abruption later in pregnancy. It may also increase the risk of your baby:
- being born prematurely
- having withdrawal symptoms after birth
- being born with a low birth weight
- having heart problems
- having problems with learning and behaviour, when he is older
Heroin has serious risks for your baby and can even be fatal. Babies who are exposed to heroin in the uterus have a high risk of:
- premature birth
- being born too small
- having breathing problems at birth
- needing a longer stay in a hospital neonatal unit
If you take heroin during pregnancy, your baby could have withdrawal symptoms. The risk of cot death for babies exposed to heroin in the uterus is also much higher than average.
As they grow older, children may have problems with growth, intelligence and behaviour.
Trying to quit heroin on your own could be dangerous for you and your baby. The safest way to quit is with medical help, as part of a drug treatment programme.
Where can I go for support and information?
If you are taking illegal drugs it is really important to talk to your midwife or doctor. They need to know you are taking drugs, so that they can give you the right care and support during your pregnancy.
Your midwife or doctor won’t judge you for taking drugs. Telling them about the drugs shows how much you care about your baby. It’s the job of your midwife and your doctor to look after you as best they can. So the more they know, the more they can help you and your baby to get the right treatment.
You can also get confidential extra support from organisations on our links page and if in Calderdale, from Calderdale in Recovery