Effects of Cocaine Use During Pregnancy

Women who use cocaine during pregnancy inevitably expose their developing fetuses to the drug, and once cocaine enters a fetus or newborn baby, it remains for longer amounts of time than it would in an adult. As a consequence of these facts, cocaine-using mothers and their developing fetuses and newborn babies have significantly increased risks for a variety of serious problems both during and after pregnancy. Among these potential problems are miscarriages, separation of the life-supporting placenta from the wall of the uterus, premature births, birth defects, and abnormally low birth weight.

The Basics

When cocaine enters an expectant mother’s system, it travels through her bloodstream to the placenta, an organ-like structure that provides a developing fetus with essential requirements such as the intake of oxygen and other nutrients, and the removal of carbon dioxide gas and other wastes. These services are provided by two arteries and a single vein that run from the placenta to fetus through the umbilical cord. Cocaine also passes from the placenta through the umbilical arteries and into the fetus’s body. Fetuses can’t directly break down cocaine and eliminate the drug as an adult would; instead the drug gets broken down and eliminated gradually as it circulates in the mother’s bloodstream. In practical terms, this means that cocaine remains in the bodies of fetuses for relatively extended periods of time.

Miscarriage and Placental Abruption

Miscarriage is the term that doctors use to describe any unforeseen or spontaneous loss of a fetus during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. Placental abruption is the term used to describe an abnormal detachment of the placenta from the uterine wall. Pregnant women who use cocaine often have increased risks for a miscarriage during the early portion of their pregnancies, as well as increased risks for placental abruption late in their pregnancies, according to the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS), a national group that scientifically examines various health risks associated with pregnancy. Potential complications of a miscarriage include retention of some of the material from a fetus or placenta, and a serious infection resulting from this retention. Potential complications of a placental abruption include premature birth and heavy, uncontrolled bleeding that can kill a mother or her nearly full-term child.

Premature Birth

Premature birth is the term for childbirth that occurs before a pregnancy lasts for at least 37 weeks. Women who use cocaine during pregnancy increase their chances of going into labor prematurely by roughly 25 percent, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reports. Potential health complications in a premature child include jaundice, the red blood cell disorder called anemia, breathing problems such as a form of delayed breathing called apnea, hearing or vision problems, decreased mental function, cerebral palsy, brain hemorrhages and an increased susceptibility to various forms of bacterial or viral infection.

Birth Defects

Birth defect is the common term for any abnormal physical condition that appears in a newborn child at the point of birth. Reputable studies disagree on whether or not cocaine use during pregnancy can produce these physical changes, OTIS explains. However, while most babies born to cocaine-using mothers don’t develop birth defects, there is considerable evidence indicating that babies born in these circumstances can develop defects in various parts of the body, including the heart, intestines, skull, brain, arms, legs, eyes, urinary tract and genitals. It appears that women who use large amounts of cocaine during pregnancy have higher birth defect-related risks than women who use relatively small amounts of the drug.

Low Birth Weight

Doctors diagnose low birth weight in babies who weigh less than five pounds, eight ounces at the time of their birth. Cocaine in a pregnant woman’s system can contribute to the development of this condition by robbing a fetus of some of the oxygen and other nutrients required for full fetal growth, OTIS reports. This problem can appear when cocaine-using women deliver full-term babies, as well as when cocaine-using women deliver prematurely. Problems in later life associated with abnormally low weight at childbirth include heart disease, the blood sugar disorder called diabetes, and hypertension (high blood pressure).

Additional Potential Problems

OTIS and the American Pregnancy Association list a number of other potential problems in children born to women who used cocaine during pregnancy. These problems include symptoms of drug withdrawal, delayed development of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), unusually poor muscle tone, delayed acquisition of language skills, delayed learning abilities, and a greater overall chance of requiring some form of special education during childhood.

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