Pregnant Women Using Less Alcohol, More Illicit Drugs

pregnant woman with a glass of wine

The message that drinking and pregnancy poses considerable risk to the unborn fetus appears to be getting through. Over the last decade, alcohol use among pregnant women has decreased, according to a new report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. More troubling, however, is that during that same 10-year period, illicit drug use among pregnant woman has seen a dramatic increase.

The report shows that pregnant women who sought substance abuse treatment for alcohol with or without drug use dropped from 46.6 percent in 2000 to 34.8 percent in 2010. Pregnant women admitted for substance abuse treatment for drug use without co-occurring alcohol use increased to 63.8 percent in 2010, compared with 2000’s 51.1 percent.

But it isn’t just pregnant women who are using illicit drugs more. The report showed similar patterns among women of child-bearing age who sought substance abuse treatment. In a summary, the report concludes that this may mean more attention needs to be focused on addressing drug use in this population.

Risks of Illicit Drug Use in Pregnant Women

What are some of the risks associated with illicit drug use in pregnant women? They vary by drug type, but here are some of the most common:


Adverse effects include:

  • Smaller head circumference in cocaine-exposed infants
  • Lower birth weight and length
  • Irritability
  • Poor interactive abilities
  • Increased incidence of stillbirth, prematurity and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)


Complications include:

  • Spontaneous abortion, premature labor and delivery, premature membrane rupture, high blood pressure and intrauterine death.
  • The fetus is at risk for death due to the mother’s episodes of withdrawal.
  • Fetuses exposed to opioids such as heroin and methadone have lower birth weights than unexposed fetuses and usually undergo neonatal abstinence syndrome at birth.

Amphetamine, Methamphetamine

Both short- and long-term effects result from exposure to amphetamine and methamphetamine, including:

  • Abnormal growth of the fetus
  • Withdrawal symptoms after birth
  • Impaired neurological development in infancy and childhood
  • Amphetamine exposure increases the risk of reduced fetal growth, heart anomalies and cleft lip and palate.
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