Alcohol and Drug Exposure

Adopt Special Needs:Special Needs - Alcohol and Drug ExposureAlcohol and drug exposure to a baby during pregnancy may result in a child being born with special needs.  We provide the following information for reference purposes only and cannot attest to the accuracy of the information. We highly recommend speaking with an experienced physician for further details on each condition.

Alcohol and Drug Exposure

Drug Exposure

Drug exposure
to a developing fetus has been associated with potential side effects and even long-term issues for the child. It is often difficult, however, to estimate the long-term consequences to a child, as much depends on the extent of prenatal care, nutrition, and quality of early parenting and whether it involves neglect or abuse. It is estimated that up to 10% of women in the United States use illegal drugs during their pregnancies. These include central nervous system depressants, such as sedatives and narcotics; stimulants, including cocaine and amphetamines; and hallucinogens, including LSD and PCP. The effects of drug exposure on a baby depend on the particular substance being abused, but they can include birth defects, low birthweight, and neurological changes. Effects may be subtle and may include developmental deficits affecting behavior and learning abilities.

Some of the drugs which have been studied as to their effects on newborns include:

  • Cocaine: It is estimated that 1 to 5% of babies in the U.S. have been exposed to cocaine during pregnancy. It is associated with decreased blood flow in the uterus, which can cause poor oxygen to the fetus and an increase in the baby’s blood pressure and heart rate. Babies may have low birth weight, intrauterine growth retardation, microcephaly, neurological delay, and physical defects, especially involving the digestive system and kidneys.
  • Methamphetamines: Women who use meth during pregnancy can have babies with problems similar to those seen with the use of cocaine in pregnancy. Meth causes the baby to get less oxygen, which may lead to low birth weight. Babies can be born addicted to methamphetamine and suffer withdrawal symptoms that include tremors, involuntary muscle spasms, irritability, and feeding difficulties. Some experts believe that learning difficulties may result as the child ages.
  • Sedatives and Hypnotics: The use of sedatives and hypnotics during pregnancy often leads to physical dependency in the baby. Newborns may go through withdrawal symptoms following birth. Children exposed to these drugs during pregnancy may have behavioral and nervous system disorders, plus digestive and respiratory issues.
  • Narcotics: Narcotic abuse during pregnancy is associated with a higher-than-normal incidence of a baby being born prematurely. Infants exposed to heroin during pregnancy are at a higher risk of having low birth weight, congenital birth defects, and respiratory issues. Up to 75% of babies who are born to heroin addicts show signs of addiction themselves, going through often difficult withdrawal symptoms the first few days of life. Symptoms may include tremors, poor feeding ability, breathing issues, irritability, diarrhea, fever, and weight loss.

Little is documented about the long-term outcome of children exposed to drugs during pregnancy. Attempts to assess the effects of drug exposure on newborns are difficult due to the many medical and environmental variables present. However the research which has been done shows that the majority of children do well when placed in loving and nurturing families.


Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Adopt Special Needs: Special Needs - Alcohol and Drug Exposure - Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
(FAS) is a condition which results from alcohol exposure during the birth mother’s pregnancy. The severity of FAS varies from child to child, but the defects presenting with this syndrome are not reversible. Children with FAS often have distinct facial features, including smaller eye openings, flattened cheekbones, and an underdeveloped groove between the nose and the upper lip. They also may have the following conditions:

  • Low birth weight
  • Small head circumference
  • Failure to thrive
  • Developmental delays
  • Poor coordination and fine motor skills
  • Poor socialization skills, such as difficulty making friends
  • Poor coordination and fine motor skills  
  • Learning difficulties, including poor memory, poor language comprehension, and poor problem-solving skills
  • Behavioral problems, including hyperactivity, inability to concentrate, social withdrawal, impulsiveness, defiance, and anxiety

When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, some of that alcohol passes across the placenta to the fetus, which does not process alcohol the same way as an adult. Damage can be done in the first few weeks of pregnancy when a woman might not yet know that she is pregnant. The risk increases if the mother is a heavy drinker, although there is no known amount of alcohol that is safe to drink while pregnant.

There is no cure for FAS. The physical defects and mental deficiencies typically persist for a lifetime. However therapy and early intervention services can help reduce some of the effects of FAS and help a child make developmental progress. Medications may be prescribed to help with behavioral issues.