The Dangers of Drug Use During Pregnancy

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson, we'll describe the problems with drug use during pregnancy and the impact on the developing fetus. We'll also explain some of the problems that arise after the baby is born, including the increased risk for HIV infection in mothers who use injectable drugs.


Sandra is very excited and nervous. Her at-home pregnancy kit just turned pink, indicating she is pregnant. The pregnancy was unplanned, so she's anxious as well. Her life isn't exactly fit for a baby. She has an on-and-off boyfriend, and they're into the music scene, which often comes with drug use. She's been using painkillers and marijuana on and off. Thinking she can quit by herself, she decides to go through with the pregnancy.

However, as Sandra soon finds out, quitting drugs isn't easy, especially during periods of emotional and physical stress, like pregnancy. Today, we'll look at the consequences of drug use on fetal development for commonly abused drugs.


Marijuana is the most commonly used drug in the United States. Marijuana works like a natural hormone in our body called an endocannabinoid . The hormone regulates lots of things in our body, including hunger and satiety, memory, mood and how the brain communicates. Marijuana alters that signaling.

Animal studies have shown that use of marijuana affects fetal brain development and can even cause a predisposition to substance abuse in the baby. In humans, babies that had been exposed to marijuana in the mother had lower test scores, motor coordination, and behavior and cognitive problems in school. Marijuana should be avoided during pregnancy and doctors prescribing marijuana should seek alternatives for pregnant women.

Marijuana use during pregnancy can be dangerous for the baby
marijuana use


Opiates are any painkiller drug that works on the body's natural opiate system for pain relief, including heroin and prescription medication like Oxycontin and Vicodin. Opiates are highly addictive and can have severe withdrawal symptoms if the person doesn't go through a medically monitored detox program. When mothers use opiates, the fetus can become addicted to the drug inside the uterus. Within 72 hours of delivery, the baby can go through withdrawal, a sickness that happens when a person suddenly stops using drugs, like vomiting, seizures and hyperventilation.

During pregnancy, opiate use can lead to heart defects, decreased fetal growth, fetal death and premature labor. After the baby is born, there is also concern about the environment he or she will be raised in. Often, addiction and illicit drug use creates an unsafe home. The home environment should be investigated, and the baby may need to be put in foster care.

Heroin use can cause babies to be addicted to opiates when born
heroin use

HIV Infection

Injectable drugs, like opiates and methamphetamines (a stimulant drug sometimes injected with heroin), increase risk for blood born infections like human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). HIV is a sexually transmitted disease that can be passed between mother and child. It infects the immune system and kills off a type of cell called T-cells. T-cells actively fight off infections, leaving an HIV-positive person prone to illnesses we readily fight off, like pneumonia, the flu and fungal infections.

During pregnancy, an HIV-positive mom can take HIV medication, like antiretroviral therapy to decrease the amount of the virus in her blood. Upon birth, the baby will also be given medication to help prevent the infection. Fortunately, relatively few babies in America are born with HIV due to these preventative methods. However, in countries with less healthcare, like Africa, which is home to around 47% of the world's HIV-infected children, many babies get HIV from their mother during gestation.

Sign in Africa reminding citizens of the dangers of HIV infection
HIV sign

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