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Understanding Maternal Substance Use

Maternal substance use disorder (SUD) is a medical term used to describe a psychological condition impacting one’s brain and actions, resulting in an inability to regulate the use of substances such as legal or illicit drugs, alcohol, or prescribed medications during pregnancy.  

Maternal substance use disorder is a problem with serious consequences for a baby’s development


Opioid use disorder during pregnancy can lead to maternal death, poor fetal growth, preterm birth, stillbirth, birth defects and neonatal abstinence syndrome. 


Alcohol exposure during pregnancy can result in impaired fetal growth, stillbirth, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Lifelong issues can arise for babies born to mothers who drank during pregnancy. There are no current treatment options for fetal alcohol-related deficits.


Babies born to mothers who smoke or use nicotine during pregnancy incur damage to their brain and lungs. This damage is permanent. Nicotine also causes blood vessels to narrow, so the baby receives less oxygen and nutrients from their mother.


Meth use has been linked to increased risk for preterm delivery, poor growth, and low birth weight. Some studies suggest that methamphetamine use in pregnancy may increase maternal risk for high blood pressure, placental abruption, and fetal or infant death.


Cannabis use during pregnancy can be harmful to your baby’s health and put you at risk of pregnancy complications. The chemicals (THC) in cannabis pass through your system to your baby and may be harmful to development. Some research shows that using cannabis during pregnancy can lead to lower birth weights and abnormal cognitive development. Breathing cannabis smoke contains many of the toxic and cancer-causing chemicals found in tobacco smoke.


Babies born to mothers who use cocaine during pregnancy are often born too early, also have low birth weights, smaller head circumferences, and are shorter in length than babies born to mothers who do not use cocaine. 

It is difficult to determine exactly how a drug may affect an unborn baby or the consequences in any maternal SUD situation. This is due to the complexity of individual lives. What we do know is that your baby needs you, and you need to be healthy to be there for them. Addiction doesn’t have to own you. Addiction to a substance is a treatable condition, and like any other medical issue, it will harm your health until it gets treated.

You are not alone. There is no easy button to becoming and being a mom, but it can be better than it is right now. When you seek support, you will get medical help that will treat both your physical health and your mental wellbeing. 

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