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How Bad is Cocaine Use During Pregnancy? 

by DP Nguyen

in Pregnancy, Pregnancy Health

Everyone knows that cocaine use (and illegal drug use) is harmful during pregnancy. It’s dangerous not only to the woman abusing drugs, but also to her unborn baby. But just how bad is cocaine for the developing baby?

According to new research, cocaine use is linked to smaller, more premature babies – a baby born before 37 weeks pregnant. Premature babies already face a number of health complications, mostly because their lungs and other organs aren’t ready to function on their own yet. Preemies are at higher risk for life-threatening infections, and they are more likely to die within the first week of life.

Premature babies born to cocaine-addicted moms are at even higher risk for health complications and serious illness. They are more likely to face illness and health problems as a newborn, and they will probably face long-term disabilities, including cerebral palsy, mental retardation, and early death.

Cocaine Use in Pregnancy Increases Preterm Birth by One-Third

The researchers in this newest study discovered that the babies of cocaine addicts had a one in three chance of being born prematurely. No matter the amount of cocaine abused, the result was the same – the babies were more likely to be born early. (In a woman who does not use drugs, the risk of premature birth is only one in eight. In the United States, an estimated 12.8 percent of all babies are born before full-term, or 37 weeks.)

The infants of cocaine-addicted mothers were also smaller in weight, size, and head circumference. Their brains were also smaller. The risk of pregnant cocaine abusers delivering an underweight baby (an infant under five and a half pounds) was also one-third. (Women who do not use cocaine have a one in ten chance of having an underweight baby.)

To conduct this study, which is published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the researchers looked at 31 previous studies and examined how cocaine specifically affected the babies of drug users. No previous study used a large sample size, so combining all the research together allowed the researchers to see just how badly cocaine use affected the babies.

And the results were not surprising. In addition to the higher risk of being born prematurely and underweight, the newborns of cocaine-addicted mothers had a more difficult time feeding, and they were more at risk for being ill within the first year of life.

Unfortunately, the women who used cocaine during pregnancy also abused other illicit drugs. Many also smoked and did not get prenatal care. All these factors contributed to why their babies face health complications.

Cocaine Use During Pregnancy

Cocaine use during pregnancy can cause the mother to experience placental problems, including a complication caused placental abruption – when the placenta pulls away from the uterine wall before labor is supposed to begin. This can cause heavy bleeding, and it can become life threatening for both the baby and mom. Placental abruption can deprive the baby of oxygen and blood flow, which increases his or her risk of serious health problems and death.

The babies of cocaine users tend to grow poorly in the womb, which is why their risk of being underweight is one-third. In addition, because many of the cocaine users in this study smoke, this further contributes to why they are underweight. Smoking restricts the oxygen supply to the baby, resulting in smaller, unhealthy babies.

In addition, the smaller brains of these infants puts them at higher risk for learning problems and mental retardation.

Other studies have suggested that cocaine-exposed newborns are at higher risk for birth defects, including defects in the heart and urinary tract. While in the womb, unborn babies exposed to cocaine can have a stroke, which may cause death and irreversible brain damage in the babies that survive.

After they are born, babies who are regularly exposed to cocaine during pregnancy are sometimes more jittery and irritable. They may cry at the slightest touch or sound. Comforting these babies can be difficult, because they may be unresponsive and withdrawn. In other cocaine-exposed babies, they don’t react to the outside world. Instead, they enter a deep sleep most of the time. Fortunately, these behavioral issues are temporary.

Not surprisingly, babies who are exposed to cocaine in the womb are more likely to die of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).

Sadly, cocaine is addicting and it is hard for the mother to stop her drug habit. It’s important for pregnant women with a cocaine habit to enter a drug rehab program to help them quit. Therapy and avoiding contact from “friends” who also abuse drugs and cocaine will also help women quit abusing cocaine and other illicit drugs.

Substance abuse treatment centers are located in all 50 states. If you are having trouble quitting cocaine or any other illegal substance, you can search for a treatment center near you. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a great list of facility locations, go to: Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator.


DP Nguyen is founder and editor of Hip Chick's Guide to PMS, Pregnancy and Babies. She’s an expert pregnancy and women’s health blogger. She is NOT a medical doctor and does NOT offer medical advice. Connect with her on Google+, Twitter and Facebook.

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