Drug Usage Effects on BabyWhen adoptive families are asked what kinds of prenatal drug exposure they are open to in their child, their main concern is the health of their future child. In a perfect world, an adoptive family’s child will have had no drug exposure and will be born perfectly healthy.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that many babies placed for adoption have been exposed to some type of drug in utero.  Exposure can vary from very little to multiple times per day, and effects on the child can vary just as greatly. However, each of these babies has something in common: they’re in need of a loving family to care for and nurture them.

Before making any decisions regarding drug exposure, it is important that adoptive families understand the possible effects on the child. Below, we have identified the most commonly used drugs and the possible effects they may have on an unborn child.


Babies who are exposed to cigarette smoke in utero are more likely to be born premature, have low birth weight, and have weaker lungs than babies whose mothers did not smoke during pregnancy. They are also more likely to die from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Low birth weight can lead to a variety of other health issues such as: Respiratory distress syndrome, increased risk of infection, low blood sugar, problems with feeding, and difficulty regulating body temperature.


When pregnant mothers drink, so do their babies, which can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). FASDs include a variety of physical and mental disabilities as well as emotional and behavioral problems.


There are very few studies that examine the effects of marijuana on developing fetuses making it difficult to say with any certainty what those effects may be.  There is little evidence of birth defects in children whose mothers smoked marijuana. However, marijuana use during pregnancy may be linked to low birth weight, hyperactivity, and some memory deficiencies.


Though many antidepressants have been deemed ok to use during pregnancy, none have been proven safe without question. Certain brands of antidepressants have been associated with rare lung problems in newborns, and others have associated with a small increase in fetal heart defects. However, the overall risks of birth defects remain extremely low.

Antidepressant usage, particularly in the last trimester of pregnancy, can cause discontinuation or withdraw symptoms in newborns – such as jitters or irritability. Though these symptoms can be difficult for a parent to witness, they are usually short-lived.

Anti-Convulsants/Seizure Medications

While there are risks to a developing baby whose mother is taking seizure medications, there is also a risk to babies whose mothers go through pregnancy with untreated seizures.

Pregnant women who experience seizures are at risk for trauma from falls or burns, premature labor, miscarriages, and low fetal heart rate due to lack of oxygen.  These risks are generally seen as greater than the risks associated with seizure medications.

Effects of seizure medications on babies are generally limited to congenital malformations. In women who take seizure medications, the risk of congenital malformations in babies is 4-6 percent. The most common malformations include cleft lip and clef palate, as well as problems with the heart, urinary or genital systems.


Knowledge of the effects of methamphetamine abuse during pregnancy is incredibly limited. However, some research points to increased rates of premature delivery, still birth, and placental abruption, as well as low birth weight, lethargy, heart and brain abnormalities, and lasting neurological deficits.

Methadone (OxyContin, Vicodin, morphine, etc.)

Though few studies have been done, methadone use during pregnancy is thought to increase the risk of smaller than normal head size and low birth weight. However, the biggest concern with fetuses exposed to methadone in utero is withdrawal symptoms after birth.


Heroin use during pregnancy has been said to cause placental abruption, premature birth, low birth weight, birth defects, neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), still birth, and birth defects, as well as an increased risk of SIDS.  The most common effect on babies whose mothers used heroin during pregnancy is NAS or withdrawal symptoms after birth.

In addition, mothers who injected heroin into their system during pregnancy are at a much higher risk for contracting HIV and other diseases via needle sharing. These diseases can potentially be passed from mother to child.


While there have been very few studies done to evaluate the effects of ecstasy on unborn babies, it is thought to increase the risks of premature birth and low birth weight. Babies exposed to ecstasy in utero are more likely to suffer from NAS or withdrawal symptoms as well as a variety of cognitive impairments.

Cocaine/Crack Cocaine

The use of cocaine during pregnancy can have a variety of effects on babies, and it appears that the effects worsen when exposure is higher. When used early in pregnancy, cocaine is thought to affect the structure and function of the brain, which may predispose children to developmental, behavioral or cognitive problems. Additionally, babies exposed to cocaine in utero are at greater risk for premature birth, low birth weight and small size.

Amphetamines (Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvanse, etc.)

Research on the effects of amphetamine use during pregnancy is extremely limited. However, there have been many adverse outcomes reported alongside amphetamine use. These include: premature birth, stillbirth, low birth weight, small size (including head circumference), cleft lip, heart defects, biliary atresia, hyperbilirubinemia (Jaundice), cerebral hemorrhage, systolic murmur and undescended testes.

Because the effects of many of these drugs have not been adequately studied, the above risks likely do not show the whole picture. Some of these effects may have been falsely attributed to the drug, and other possible effects may not have been listed.

Unfortunately, there is no way to predict how any one drug may affect a child. Variables such as, amount/length of drug exposure, time of exposure, use of more than one drug, and other environmental factors can drastically change the outcome of each pregnancy. The best thing adoptive families can to do is to learn as much as they can about the possible effects of these drugs, consult a physician or pediatrician, and decide what outcomes they fell comfortable accepting.


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