Addicted Before Birth: Why We Need to Address Prenatal Substance Use

26 January 2021 / By Social Media

Drugs and alcohol in their various forms pose a significant public health problem. Individuals who engage in harmful substance use may face long term negative physical, interpersonal and social consequences. However, the ill effects of substance use are not restricted solely to the individual who uses the substance- rather, they are considerably more far reaching.

Pregnancy is one such time where the birth giver may cause a range of unintended consequences for their child if they engage in substance use during the gestation period.

Substance use qualifies as a teratogen during pregnancy. A teratogen is any environmental influence that has a negative impact on the developing fetus. The impact of some pre-natal exposure to drugs on child development is elaborated below:

Illicit Drugs
Prenatal exposure to illicit drugs such as methadone, cocaine or heroin puts children at risk for an array of problems including prematurity, low birth weight, physical defects, breathing difficulties, and death at or around the time of birth. Further, these infants are born addicted to drugs, which results in irritability and feverishness, along with difficulty in sleeping. When caregivers who may have problems of their own must care for these babies, who are difficult to calm, cuddle, and feed, behaviour problems are likely to persist.
Over the long term, some infants may show relative improvement, whereas others may have lasting problems in the areas of memory, attention, perception and impulse control.

Marijuana is the most commonly used recreational drug. Prenatal exposure to marijuana may result in smaller head size, deficits in attention and memory, poor academic achievement as well as a tendency toward depression and/or aggression in childhood and adolescence.

Drinking even up to one drink a day during pregnancy can negatively impact the growth and development of the child. The worst manifestation of the prenatal alcohol use in the form of fatal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD); which has implications for physical, mental and behavioural outcomes. Individuals with FASD show slow physical growth, facial abnormalities such as short eyelid openings and thin upper lip; as well as brain injury.

Smoking during pregnancy has several adverse implications for the infant. Low birth weight, prematurity, impaired heart rate, as well as asthma and cancer in early childhood are some of the outcomes associated with pre-natal maternal smoking. These severity of these adverse outcomes is directly proportional to the number of cigarettes consumed by the parent. Even passive smoking in the fetus’s immediate environment is linked to negative outcomes such as childhood respiratory illness.
To conclude, it is evident that pre-natal exposure to harmful substances results in negative consequences that may affect the individuals quality of life from before birth into adulthood.
Therefore, addressing substance use among expecting parents is an immediate public health concern. Pregnant individuals should steer clear of any harmful substances, including opioids, tobacco, alcohol, caffeine etc. in order to safeguard the wellbeing of their children as well as themselves.

Berk, L. E. (2000). Child development.

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