Cocaine Use During Pregnancy: 9 Different Ways Cocaine Affects Your Unborn Baby

Last Updated: Jul 23rd 2019

Reviewed by Brittany Polansky

Did you know that 21% of people who try cocaine will eventually become addicted to it?

Similar to many other drug addictions, cocaine addiction doesn’t discriminate – and, unfortunately, this includes pregnant women. It is reported that 750,00 unborn children have been exposed to cocaine at some point in the last year.

This means that 750,000 fetuses have been exposed to this highly addictive and harmful drug. Whether it was short-term or long-term exposure, cocaine use during pregnancy can have dangerous effects on your unborn baby.

What exactly can happen to babies exposed to cocaine use during pregnancy? Check out the list below for 9 different ways cocaine can affect your unborn baby.

The Effects Of Cocaine Use During Pregnancy

Pregnancy already can be a difficult time for expecting mothers. Dealing with a cocaine addiction, on top of the normal concerns of pregnancy, can make it extremely hard. However, beating this cocaine addiction can mean life or death for your baby. Some of the common effects of cocaine use during pregnancy include:

  1. Miscarriage
  2. Birth Defects
  3. Placenta Abruption
  4. Intrauterine Growth Restrictions
  5. Premature Labor
  6. Stillbirth
  7. NAS
  8. Neurodevelopmental Issues
  9. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

1. Miscarriage

The devastating loss of your baby prior to 20 weeks gestation is considered a miscarriage. Cocaine use can increase your risk of a miscarriage during the first 5 months of your pregnancy. 

Cocaine can cause your blood vessels to constrict which leads to reduced blood flow. Not only does this negatively impact the mother but this decreased blood flow can also impact the baby.

If blood isn’t flowing to the uterus, it cannot receive oxygen or nutrients for the baby. This lack of oxygen and nutrients can lead to miscarriage.

2. Birth Defects

Cocaine birth defects include defects with the brain, face, eyes, heart, and limbs. Some common examples are cleft palates and missing limbs.

Congenital heart disease is another common birth defect found with cocaine usage during pregnancy. This can include a small hole in the heart, a leaky valve, issues with the heart muscle, or more. Some types of congenital heart disease can resolve on its own. Others, however, may need surgery and can lead to death.

3. Placental Abruption

Less than 1% of births in the United States suffer from placental abruption. However, if you use cocaine during your pregnancy, this increases your risks to 10-19%

What exactly is a placental abruption? During pregnancy, the placenta plays a critical role in supplying nutrients and oxygen to the baby. In order to do this, it must be attached to the side of the uterus.

When a placental abruption happens, the placenta detaches from the uterus. This typically happens suddenly and prior to delivery. This is dangerous as it cuts off the baby’s supply of nutrients and oxygen.

The mother can experience heavy bleeding due to a placental abruption that can lead to organ failure or a hysterectomy. For the baby, this can lead to premature birth and stillbirth.

4. Intrauterine Growth Restrictions

Intrauterine growth restrictions – or IUGR—happens to babies that experience slow growth in the uterus. Typically, babies that have IUGR will be smaller than the average baby in both weight and size. They may also suffer from microcephaly – a condition in which the baby’s head circumference is smaller than normal.

Studies have linked heavy cocaine usage to increased risk of IUGR. Since cocaine usage causes issues with the placenta, this can restrict the amount of oxygen and nutrients that are supplied to the baby. As a result, babies of mothers who use cocaine are often smaller in size due to malnutrition in the womb.

5. Premature Labor

When a pregnant woman continues to use cocaine towards the end of her pregnancy, this greatly increases the risk of premature labor. Premature labor is when you go into labor 3 weeks or more before your due date.

Premature labor is very risky for your baby. Babies born prematurely have lower rates of survival. The earlier they are born, the less likely they are to survive.

On top of this, those that do survive tend to have more long-term issues. This includes cerebral palsy, autism, vision issues, and intellectual disabilities. 

6. Stillbirth

24,000 babies are stillborn each year. This means that the baby passes away before or during the delivery. This tragic event is every mother’s worst nightmare.

In a recent study, scientists found that cocaine use increases your risk of stillbirth by over 2%. While this may not seem like a very large percentage increase, it is still a risk that you shouldn’t want to take. 

7. Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

When a pregnant woman uses cocaine, the drug crosses the placenta and enters the bloodstream of the baby. This means as the mother uses cocaine throughout her pregnancy, so is the baby. As a result, the baby can also become physically addicted to the drug.  

Once the baby is born, the baby will suffer from withdrawal symptoms. This includes fever, vomiting, feeding issues, and possible seizures. 

8. Neurodevelopmental Issues

Cocaine usage during pregnancy can also lead to neurodevelopmental problems for babies as they grow older. This can include learning disabilities and behavioral issues.

There also have been links to cocaine usage during pregnancy to children with ADD and ADHD. They’re more likely to have issues in the classroom and struggle as they grow older. 

9. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

Unfortunately, another tragic effect of cocaine usage during pregnancy is the increased likelihood of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). In a study completed from 1988 to 1992, SIDS was more likely to occur in infants that had been exposed to cocaine during pregnancy. 

While SIDS is considered an unexplained death of a baby, it is evident that drug exposure during pregnancy can greatly increase the risks.

Seek Help Today

If you’re suffering from cocaine addiction, don’t be afraid to seek help today. Cocaine use during pregnancy is a serious concern for the baby but the sooner you stop, the better chance your baby has at a healthy life.

If you or someone you know needs help, please reach out to us at 1st Step Behavioral Health. We have decades of experience in treating addiction with highly-trained professionals.  

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Brittany Polansky

Brittany PolanskyBrittany has been working in behavioral health since 2012 and is a Primary Clinician at our facility. She is an LCSW and holds a master’s degree in social work. She has great experience with chemical dependency and co-occurring mental health diagnoses as well as various therapeutic techniques. Brittany is passionate about treating all clients with dignity and respect, and providing a safe environment where clients can begin their healing journey in recovery.