Get help today 888-744-0069 or sign up for 24/7 text support.
American Addiction Centers National Rehabs Directory

Risks of Substance Abuse While Pregnant & Treatment Options

Drinking alcohol or using drugs while pregnant can cause a number of negative health outcomes for both mother and child. It can affect a growing fetus because substances travel easily from the placenta, creating great potential for harm.4

While not all women who take a substance are misusing it, it’s important to understand how drugs and alcohol affect a woman and her baby during pregnancy in order to avoid potential adverse reactions or complications. Some women take prescription medications to help manage other health conditions, which should be addressed with a doctor.2

This article will outline the potential risks of using substances while pregnant.

Alcohol Use During Pregnancy

Even a small amount of alcohol consumed during pregnancy can place an unborn baby at risk, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.8

Drinking alcohol can increase your risk of miscarriage and may result in a number of developmental issues in your child, such as fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)—the most severe example on the spectrum of fetal alcohol disorders.3 All fetal alcohol spectrum disorders involve negative consequences affecting the physical, mental, and behavioral health of a child.3

Though there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, many pregnant women consume at least some alcohol during this time, believing that a small number of drinks will be safe.

Cocaine and Pregnancy

Tracking the negative effects of cocaine use during pregnancy is a difficult task. This may be more difficult because women who misuse cocaine often have poor nutrition and inadequate prenatal care. People who use cocaine also tend to use the drug in combination with other substances like alcohol, making it hard to determine precisely which substance is responsible for the harmful effects on the fetus.4

Cocaine can exacerbate the normal cardiovascular changes you experience during pregnancy.4 Women consuming cocaine may experience severe hypertension, seizures, migraines, and separation of the placenta from the uterus. If the placenta and uterus separate, it can affect the mother’s ability to carry her baby to term.4

Heroin and Pregnancy

Using an illicit drug like heroin also significantly increases your baby’s risk of developing neonatal abstinence syndrome shortly after birth, as well as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)—also referred to as crib death. Learn more about the effects of using heroin while pregnant.

Marijuana and Pregnancy

Contrary to popular belief, marijuana can be harmful and should be avoided when trying to conceive, during pregnancy, and while breastfeeding.4 While there is limited evidence on how marijuana use can affect a developing fetus, several studies suggest that it may be associated with impaired fetal development, rare forms of cancer, premature birth, and low body weight at birth.

MDMA (Ecstasy) and Pregnancy

Studies suggest that fetal MDMA exposure during the first trimester can lead to long-term memory problems and impaired learning, as well as movement and coordination problems in the child.4 There have also been cases where babies exposed to MDMA or ‘ecstasy‘ while in utero developed cardiovascular anomalies and musculoskeletal problems.

Meth and Pregnancy

It has been reported that exposing a fetus to meth can result in several long-term health issues, including issues with cognitive skills, physical dexterity, and behavior. Mental health problems including increased depression, anxiety, and social isolation have been reported in children exposed to meth in the womb.4

Pregnant women using meth may be at risk of high blood pressure, placental abruption, and premature delivery.4

Painkillers and Pregnancy

Pregnant woman holding painkiller pills

Painkiller use during pregnancy—even if the medications were prescribed by your doctor before conception—can be harmful to your developing fetus. Opioid painkiller exposure for a fetus may be linked to excessive fluid in the baby’s brain, abdominal wall defects, glaucoma, and congenital heart defects.

Since many painkillers are chemically similar to heroin, the mother and child can experience many of the same risks. Children may be born with NAS, experiencing painful withdrawal symptoms after birth.

Cigarettes and Pregnancy

Cigarettes contain harmful chemicals that can negatively impact a developing baby’s brain and can limit the amount of oxygen being received by the fetus. Also, the impact of nicotine on a developing baby is greater than the impact on the mother. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nicotine concentration is up to 15% higher in the baby’s blood than the mother’s.4

Exposing your unborn baby to the tar, nicotine, and carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke can also result in a number of health issues after birth. These can include respiratory issues, cerebral palsy, and problems with eyesight and hearing.

Being around others that smoke can affect your child, resulting in a lower birth weight, increased likelihood of developing a respiratory illness, and a higher risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).3

Drug and Alcohol Addiction Treatment Types

If you’re struggling with drug or alcohol addiction before or during pregnancy, help is available. Getting help as early as possible will increase your chances of having a healthy baby and staying healthy and safe yourself.

You have a number of addiction treatment options to choose from. Each option represents a unique set of interventions provided in settings that vary in intensity and duration. The most effective treatment will address your substance use, mental health, physical health, and reproductive status.5

The first step towards treatment for many is detoxification and medically managed withdrawal.5 During this process, a team of medical professionals will monitor your vitals and administer medications as needed to provide comfort and safety for you and your child while the substance leaves your body.5 Depending on the drug used and the severity of your addiction, you can detox in one of a variety of settings, which are described below.5,6,7

Therapy Types

Both inpatient and outpatient treatments can offer individual, group, and family therapy using techniques like:5,6

Treatment Medications

Pregnant woman talking to male doctor

Treatments may include medication management options beyond those used during detoxification.5 For example, methadone (a prescription opioid medication used to limit withdrawal and reduce cravings for opioids)—paired with behavioral therapies and strong prenatal care—can reduce harm to the mother and baby.6 Though this treatment is used in practice, it should be noted that there are no federally approved opioid treatment medications for pregnant women.5

Finding Rehab for Pregnant Women

Professional addiction treatment options, like those listed above, can improve outcomes for individuals who decide to begin the journey toward recovery.5 If you or a loved one is pregnant and struggling with addiction, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. Effective, evidence-based treatment programs that specialize in treating pregnant women struggling with addiction can help you and your child lead healthy lives. American Addiction Centers (AAC) operates a 24/7 addiction helpline that can answer questions about pregnancy and addiction, connect you with suitable rehab programs, and verify your health insurance benefits. Please reach out to us free at to get started today.

Drug and Alcohol Addiction Treatment Levels of Care

Recommended Drug and Alcohol Rehab-Related Articles

Was this page helpful?
Thank you for your feedback.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is committed to delivering original, truthful, accurate, unbiased, and medically current information. We strive to create content that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Read our full editorial policy

While we are unable to respond to your feedback directly, we'll use this information to improve our online help.