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Effects of Drugs on the Newborn

Donald Aulds, M.D.

Because babies in the womb are exposed to everything the mother ingests, women who are pregnant should limit exposure to drugs as much as possible. This includes not only illegal drugs but also over-the-counter and prescription medications. Withdrawal from drugs can be very difficult on the baby and can result in an average one- to three-week stay in an intensive care center. Babies suffering from drug withdrawal often experience the following symptoms: loose bowel movements, poor sleeping, fever, sweating, chronic yawning, seizures, tremors and chronic sneezing.

A few of the drugs that are a major concern include:

If a woman uses cocaine during her pregnancy, the baby can suffer from low birth weight and poor growth during the pregnancy with decreased brain development. Premature labor and birth has been shown to increase when cocaine is used in the second half of the pregnancy. When used in early pregnancy, miscarriage is more common. Recent studies have also identified an increased risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). If cocaine is used throughout the pregnancy, the newborn can show withdrawal symptoms and can end up in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for drug withdrawal for one to three weeks.

Marijuana has been shown by studies to produce decreased growth of the fetus and increased risk of premature labor and delivery. The baby can undergo withdrawal symptoms and need to be in intensive care for a period of time after delivery. Long-term exposure has been linked with delayed growth and learning disabilities in children after birth.

Amphetamines, methamphetamines (crack), Ecstasy:
Studies have suggested that exposure to this class of drugs may cause an increase in heart defects and a slightly increased risk of defects of the skeleton, including clubfeet, in female babies. The effect on the unborn when used throughout pregnancy has included poor growth, decreased brain development, premature labor and delivery, and withdrawal symptoms after birth.

Opiates (heroin, methadone):
The exposure of these drugs on the fetus includes poor growth, premature rupture of membranes and premature labor and delivery. Exposure during pregnancy can cause the baby to undergo withdrawal, resulting in a prolonged stay in intensive care. After birth, the children may have learning difficulties and show behavioral problems.

Prescription pain medications ( Morphine, Dilaudid, Percodan, Lortab, Oxycontin):
Short-term exposure to this class of medications does not tend to cause any problems for the fetus or newborn. Long-term exposure throughout pregnancy has shown decreased growth, a risk of premature labor and delivery, and withdrawal after birth.

Antidepressant medications (Xanax, Valium, Wellbutrin, Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Effexor, Lexapro, Celexa, Cymbalta, Buspar):
Studies have shown that antidepressant medications cause the newborn to experience withdrawal as high as 60 percent of the time. Studies reported in The New England Journal of Medicine have shown that exposure to these drugs is also associated with high blood pressure in the lungs, a condition called persistent pulmonary hypertension.

PCP (angel dust), ketamine (Special K) and LSD (acid):
Although few studies have been done on these drugs, they have been shown to produce withdrawal symptoms in the newborn as well as learning difficulties and behavior disorders in childhood.

Inhalants (glues and solvents):
Inhaling glues and solvents during pregnancy has produced liver, kidney and brain damage in the mother. Exposure to the baby has led to decreased growth, premature birth and defects of the brain and nervous system.

Although some of these drugs may be prescribed, a discussion with the obstetrician needs to be carried out about the benefits and risks of the medications. Talk to your doctor: it is important for your baby’s safety.

More about Dr. Aulds

Donald G. Aulds, MD is an Obstetrician and Gynecologist and currently serves as the Medical Director for both the Women's Center and the Best Start Program of North Alabama. He is a Diplomat of the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Dr. Aulds completed his medical education at Louisiana State University School of Medicine, New Orleans, LA and his Internship and Residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Ochsner Medical Foundation, New Orleans, LA.

Dr. Aulds has been an active member of the Huntsville Hospital Medical Staff since 1980.