The problems associated with prenatal exposure to illicit drug use are numerous. Any drug that a mother puts into her body is shared with her developing baby. Infants who are exposed to prenatal substance use weigh less at birth (Chouteau, Namerow & Leppert, 1988), exhibit more behavior problems (McNichol & Tash, 2001), and have more special health and caregiving needs relative to their non-exposed counterparts. (McNichol, 1999)
Drug Use During Pregnancy & It’s Effects on the Baby’s Brain
Of course, we all know what drugs can do to the adult brain, and a fetus is even more at risk. It’s been shown that prenatal exposure to drugs can cause massive brain cell death. (Parber & Olney, 2003) As previously discussed, alcohol and amphetamines (meth, prescription painkillers, etc.) have also been shown to produce brain cells with the wrong number of chromosomes when exposure occurs in utero, potentially leading to profound lifelong cognitive impairment for children whose mothers use substances during pregnancy. (Saey, 2011) It’s likely all drugs result in some type of genetic damage such as this.
Habitual use of any drug also prompts the child’s brain to make adjustments in order to account for the altered biochemistry that the drug produces. This means a baby’s brain may develop abnormally, building itself with more of some chemical receptors and less of another. For example, a fetus exposed to crack or cocaine may create less dopamine producing cells and far more dopamine reuptake cells–a response to the excess dopamine its brain is exposed to. Once out of the womb, however, this is likely to mean that natural experiences produce less pleasure and are shorter lived, since the brain creates less of this feel-good chemical on its own and then mops it up again faster through its reuptake process whenever dopamine is excreted. This harder-to-please brain, in turn, has been associated with things like excessive thrill seeking and risky behaviors (including drug use), since a child needs more extreme stimulus to produce the same amount of pleasure a normal child might feel in life.
Marijuana Use During Pregnancy
Even so-called “soft drugs” put a baby at risk. Children born of women who smoked marijuana during pregnancy often show developmental cognitive impairments. (Fields, 2009) THC exposure during critical periods of development is known to slaughter young neurons and impair chemical regulation in the brain. Recent research indicates that marijuana use during pregnancy disrupts the neural development of fetuses, causing abnormalities in areas such as sex differences in the brain and in systems that govern future social behavior. (Fields, 2011)
Suffice it to say that a mother who uses illicit drugs during her pregnancy does her child a tremendous disservice. The consequences of this may not always be visible right away. It often shows up in the form of developmental delays or IQ detriments later in life, courtesy of a brain that was damaged by prenatal drug exposure. It’s a serious form of child abuse, no different than giving your two-year-old a crack pipe to smoke.
How many women use drugs during pregnancy?
Self-reports of maternal marijuana abuse during pregnancy were around 1.4% in a recent survey (Berman, 6-1-2009), and nationwide each year some 500,000 babies are born having been exposed to cocaine or other illicit drugs during the woman’s pregnancy. (Califano et al., 1999, p. 17)
Other studies have found that as many as 10% of pregnant women test positive for some type of illicit drug, and that’s not even counting those who drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes, behaviors that clearly endanger their unborn child. (Parks, 2-17-08) It’s been found that most drug exposed babies have also been exposed to alcohol and tobacco, both of which can cause serious harm to the fetus. (Califano et al., 1999, p. 17) Suffice it to say that maternal substance use during pregnancy is a fairly prominent problem that is leading to developmental setbacks and debilitating conditions for many, many children.