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Cocaine Use During Pregnancy

Cocaine use during pregnancy has the potential to harm both mother and baby, and the effects may be long-lasting.1

Research estimates that there are about 750,000 pregnancies that are exposed to cocaine every year.1 This means that a mother may use the drug before she even knows she is pregnant—placing the fetus at risk of exposure to cocaine.

While women may be fearful of discussing illicit drug use while pregnant, some risks may be reduced if pregnant women are able to access the necessary care for themselves and their babies.1

Effects of Cocaine on Pregnant Women

A pregnant woman’s health can affect the health of her unborn child. Maternal cocaine use is associated with poverty, poor nutrition, and poor prenatal care.1 Using substances like cocaine while pregnant may impact a mother’s likelihood of carrying her baby to full term, which is 37 to 41 weeks gestation.1

The misuse of cocaine is also associated with several health issues for the mother, which may include:1

  • Migraines.
  • Seizures.
  • Cardiovascular issues.
  • High blood pressure.

Cocaine and Pregnancy Effects on Fetus and Newborns

Cocaine use and pregnancy can lead to several potential adverse effects on newborn babies. In decades past, women were led to believe in exaggerated consequences related to cocaine use and pregnancy.1 While cocaine use can lead to serious health effects, some effects may not be as severe as originally thought. However, there are still potentially harmful effects.1

Pregnant women who use cocaine while pregnant may have babies with lower birth weights and smaller head circumferences, and who are shorter in length than babies born to non-cocaine using women.1

Cardiovascular issues are of particular interest to researchers as there is some evidence that cocaine use during pregnancy may increase the rate of arrhythmias and filling abnormalities.3 However, more research is needed to assess the long-term effect that cocaine has on the human heart.3

Effects may also appear later in a child’s life and can include:1

  • Behavior issues.
  • Cognitive challenges.
  • Problems processing information.
  • Attention span issues.

The long-term effects of cocaine need continued research in order to confirm how it affects pregnant women and their babies.

Prenatal Cocaine Exposure and Miscarriage

Several studies have found that pregnant mothers who misuse cocaine are at risk of miscarriage, since use early in pregnancy decreases blood flow.2 However, the risk of miscarriage due to cocaine use is debated because polysubstance use (misusing more than one substance at a time) may lead to more miscarriages than just cocaine use alone.4

More research needs to be done on other factors that may contribute to miscarriage in addition to cocaine use.

Cocaine Effects on the Developing Child

Cocaine misuse can cause long-term changes in the brain. It stimulates the brain’s reward pathway central nervous system (CNS).5 It is small in molecular weight and can cross the placenta, directly reaching the fetus.6 The direct impact of cocaine on a developing fetus may lead to a number of congenital abnormalities (or birth defects), including:6

  • Limb reduction defects (a limb fails to form properly).
  • Congenital heart diseases (CHDs).
  • Cleft palate.

Cocaine in-utero may also cause neurodevelopmental problems for children, potentially contributing to:4,6

  • Impaired adolescent functioning (poor school performance, behavior, brain structure).
  • Impaired perceptual reasoning and procedural learning.
  • Behavior problems.
  • Symptoms of oppositional defiant disorder.
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Impaired memory and executive function.
  • Problems with language development.

Researchers have also found that teens who were exposed to the drug in-utero were twice as likely to use tobacco and marijuana at age 15 and develop a substance use disorder as teens who did not experience in-utero cocaine exposure.7 These teens were also more likely to have:7

  • Trouble problem-solving.
  • Less control over their emotions.
  • Difficulty handling stress.

If the child was mistreated, neglected, or emotionally or physically abused, they were also more likely to suffer from the problems above. Researchers suggest that prenatal cocaine exposure may lower a child’s threshold for when they activate their stress circuits and may make them more vulnerable to stresses in their environment, including any mistreatment.7

Teens exposed to cocaine during pregnancy were also more likely to engage in aggressive behaviors at school, as well as steal or use tobacco or alcohol.7

Using Cocaine While Breastfeeding

Cocaine may transfer to breast milk. For mothers who use cocaine, the concentration of the drug will likely be higher in her milk than in her blood.8 The effects people feel after using cocaine are short-lasting, but it takes a person’s body significant time to metabolize cocaine and process it out of the body.1

A pregnant woman may not feel the effects of cocaine after stopping use, but it can be present in her breast milk and affect her baby. Newborn babies can be sensitive to cocaine and the presence of cocaine may be found in a baby’s urine for over 1 week.1

Learn more about using cocaine while breastfeeding.

Get Help for Cocaine Use and Pregnancy

If you are using cocaine during pregnancy, it is important that you seek medical care for substance misuse. There is evidence that early intervention can make a big difference in your child’s life.1 Getting help for cocaine misuse can greatly boost the health of your entire family in numerous ways.

There are several treatment options to help you stop using cocaine. Treatment can help you learn skills to cope with triggers without the use of cocaine or other drugs. Options for addiction treatment include:

  • Outpatient drug treatment: People visit the treatment facility on a regular basis to receive interventions like drug counseling, mutual support groups, medication, and behavioral therapy.
  • Inpatient drug treatment: This is a more intensive option, with centers that offer 24/7 care and support. There are varying types of inpatient treatment, ranging from short-term stays to longer stays (over 30 days).
  • Group-based therapy: Therapy provides you with the opportunity to learn about addiction so that you can better understand your addiction and ways to overcome it. In a group setting, you can learn from and support others who are recovering from addiction to cocaine. Group therapy is a common treatment approach offered in both outpatient and inpatient recovery settings.

By taking steps to get treatment, you are creating a safe and healthy environment for your child.

Engaging in drug treatment during and after pregnancy can improve both your health and that of your unborn child. To learn more about treatment options, please call American Addiction Centers (AAC) free today at . Our caring admissions navigators are ready to listen 24/7 and help you check your health insurance coverage so that you can get started on a healthier path today.

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