How does Substance Abuse in Utero Affect a Child

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 “You know that we are lost when babies are addicted to drugs when they are born”- Louis Eric Barrier. Every 25 minutes, in the United States, a baby is born experiencing  a dependence on some type of drug. Drinking, smoking, and recreational drug use during pregnancy has become a worldwide epidemic, harming or killing untold numbers of developing babies. Those that survive birth will continue to suffer a list of negative effects . This is a serious problem in our country as rates of addiction are increasing, drugs are on the rise, and tax payers are spending billions of dollars a year just for the addicted  newborns’ extended hospital stays.  Of all  these unpleasant facts, worse is the price that these infants  must pay throughout their lives, facing behavioral, social, or academic problems in childhood and mental health issues as adults. Women in their child bearing years need to be informed and make careful choices for their unborn children.

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According to Lauren Villa, writer at American Addiction Centers, Anywhere from 48-94% of babies exposed in utero to heroin will experience withdrawal at birth. Heroin is an extremely addictive recreational drug made from a seed pod of an opium poppy plant. Children born to heroin-dependent parents also had a high incidence of hyperactivity, inattention, and behavioral problems, determined by National Center for Biotechnology Information. Children in America born exposed to drugs in the womb has increased dramatically in the past 15 years. Reported by Mother to Baby, Studies have reported a risk for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) with heroin use during the third trimester of pregnancy. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that about 6 of 1,000 babies born in the U.S. are diagnosed with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. Hospitals may use an assessment tool developed in the 1970’s during the peak of the heroin outbreak. The assessment tool is used to help rate the infant’s symptoms which helps determine what medication to put a baby on. In accordance with Mother to Baby, March of Dimes states, If you use heroin during pregnancy, it can cause serious problems for your baby, like premature birth, NAS, birth defects and still birth. Still birth is when a full term infant dies and is delivered. Drug use also causes many pregnant women to miscarry a fetus that is not yet full term. On average, the hospital stay for an infant diagnosed with NAS is $67,000. In 2012, 80 percent of the $1.5 billion charges for the treatment of NAS were covered by Medicaid programs, funded by taxpayers. “If you do not get medical care, it is four times more likely that your baby will die during your pregnancy or shortly after being born, believed by CRC Health.  

Mother to Baby states that, Drinking alcohol in pregnancy puts the developing baby at risk for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). FAS is the most severe type of disorder infants may experience. In 2002, the lifelong estimated cost of a person with FAS was $2 million. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are the leading cause of preventable mental retardation and are 100 percent avoidable if a woman does not drink alcohol during pregnancy, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Fetal Alcohol Syndrome can have a lasting effect on the children that are born with it. Alcohol can cause more neurobehavioral problems with an infant than heroin or cocaine. Pediatrics Child Health mentions, Children with FAS have problems with development, learning, behavior and social skills. Behavior problems linked with FAS are attachment disorders, which is when children don’t have the opportunity to form a close relationship to an adult the way children typically do. As stated by March of Dimes, Drinking alcohol during pregnancy makes your baby more likely to have premature birth, birth defects and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Premature birth is an infant born before 37 weeks of due date. The earlier an infant is born, the higher risk of complications following the birth. As little as one drink a day can raise the odds of miscarrying or having a baby with a low birth weight, and raise your child’s risk of problems with learning, speech, attention span, language, and hyperactivity ( No amount of alcohol is safe for a baby during the pregnancy. Reasoning (cognitive) thinking is another consequence of FAS that can affect the child later in life with school performance. Some children don’t experience symptoms from alcohol exposure until their mid or late teen years.

Babies can be born addicted to methamphetamine and suffer withdrawal symptoms that include tremors, sleeplessness, muscle spasms, and feeding difficulties, stated by Methamphetamine is a synthetic drug that is used as a stimulant illegally. As numbers increase of pregnant women abusing substances, it is becoming a public health concern. Out of the babies exposed to meth in the womb, only four percent were treated for withdrawal.  Recovery Village states, Neonatal amphetamine withdrawal symptoms can include problems feeding, irritability and agitation. Babies may pull away, arching their back, when held and can be very restless.  As mentioned before, Recovery Village mentions that, Studies have shown that exposing a fetus to meth can cause DNA damage, and mental and physical abnormalities and heart defects. Babies will respond well to rocking and swaddling. They easily become dehydrated so should have an abundance of liquids to keep hydrated.  A 2005 study by the University of Toronto showed that taking just one dose of meth during pregnancy could have dire consequences for the baby, states Babies born with methamphetamine in their system are referred to as addicted but essentially that is not the case, their bodies have developed a physical tolerance to the drug. The majority of the study results we have come from animal studies. Babies may experience organ, muscle and bone pain.

According to Therese Grant, investigator of the Parent-Child Assistance Program, …pregnant women who used marijuana in the past year, 16.2% used almost daily. Marijuana is a psychoactive drug from a cannabis plant. Raina Delisle said in her article, in Today’s Parent, Using cannabis can lead to poor pregnancy outcomes and long-term neurodevelopmental effects on the child. Smoke from marijuana contains a lot of the same carcinogenic toxins as smoke from tobacco that cause respiratory diseases. A child whose mother used marijuana during pregnancy may have trouble with memory, attention, controlling impulses, and school performance stated by In school age children five to six, scores significantly drop in attention span and memory tests due to prenatal marijuana exposure. According to National Health Services, Research suggests that using cannabis regularly during pregnancy could affect your baby’s brain development. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), in the marijuana, is the substance that leads to problems with brain development. …mothers who use cannabis during pregnancy are more likely to have a low birth weight, which can lead to various health problems ( When a pregnant woman smokes marijuana, it stays in the baby’s fat cells for seven to 30 days.

Abusing drugs during pregnancy affects infants physically and has continued effects due to brain structure changes that may affect the growing child behaviorally, academically, and in making social-emotional connections with others. These changes may follow into their adult life, exhibiting as mental disorders, or through altered DNA. It is a serious problem for society and for the affected individual but it can be completely prevented by mothers being fully aware of what is at stake and making the choice to remain drug and alcohol free throughout their pregnancies. “A baby is born with a need to be loved – and never outgrows it.”(Frank A. Clark)

Works Cited

  1. Alcohol during Pregnancy. March of Dimes,
  3. Atwater, Taylor. Meth Babies on the Rise: Long-Term Effects of Moms on Meth During Pregnancy. The Recovery Village, The Recovery Village, 1 June 2018,
  4. Drinking Alcohol during Pregnancy. BabyCenter, 9 Oct. 2018,
  5. Delisle, Raina. Is It Safe to Use Weed during Pregnancy? Today’s Parent, Today’s Parent, 19 Oct. 2018,
  6. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: What You Should Know about Drinking during Pregnancy.
  7. Heroin and Pregnancy. March of Dimes,
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  9. Heroin’s Effects on Pregnancy., 9 Sept. 2017,
  10. Is It Safe to Smoke Weed during Pregnancy? BabyCentre UK, BabyCentre Blog,
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  12. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Dramatic Increases in Maternal Opioid Use and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. NIDA, 1 Sept. 2015,
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  14. Ornoy, A, et al. The Developmental Outcome of Children Born to Heroin-Dependent Mothers, Raised at Home or Adopted. Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 1996,
  15. Pregnant & Using Heroin. CRC Health Group,
  16. Reale, Skylar. Taking Amphetamine While Pregnant: What You Need to Know. The Recovery Village, The Recovery Village, 1 Nov. 2018,
  17. Reinberg, Steven. Pregnant Women Put Babies at Risk With Alcohol. WebMD, WebMD, 2 Feb. 2016,
  18. Smoking Weed While Pregnant: Is It Dangerous? Healthline, Healthline Media,
  19. Staff, Casa Palmera. The Facts and Effects of Methamphetamine Addiction and Pregnancy. Casa Palmera, 14 Jan. 2015,
  20. Swain County, North Carolina,
  21. Using Illegal Drugs During Pregnancy. American Pregnancy Association, 1 Feb. 2018,
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How Does Substance Abuse in Utero Affect a Child. (2019, Aug 16). Retrieved September 28, 2022 , from

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