Alcohol- and Other Drug-Related Birth Defects
Awareness Week 

May 12–18, 2019

Drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes and using illicit drugs during pregnancy harms an expectant mother’s health, but how severely does drug abuse affect unborn babies?

Each year in the United States, Mother’s Day marks the start of Alcohol- and Other Drug-Related Birth Defects Awareness Week, a time devoted to dispelling myths and increasing public knowledge about drug abuse during pregnancy.

An effort of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, the week raises awareness about the consequences of drug and alcohol use during pregnancy. In light of America’s opioid crisis worsening each year, this week holds particular importance for every woman planning a pregnancy.

The Scope of Prenatal Substance Abuse in America

The awareness week highlights timely and eye-opening statistics that remind the public how and why drug-related congenital disabilities occur. In the United States of America:

  • Approximately every 15 minutes, one baby is born struggling with opioid withdrawal
  • Approximately 15 percent of infants are exposed to alcohol and illicit drug use in the womb each year
  • An estimated 1 in 20 pregnant women uses street (illegal) drugs each year
  • Nearly 1 million pregnant women smoke cigarettes
  • More than 380,000 unborn children were exposed to illicit drugs in 2012
  • An estimated 5.9 percent of pregnant women used an illicit drug in 2012
  • Of pregnant women, 1 in 10 consumed alcohol while pregnant from 2013–2014

How Prenatal Drug Abuse Harms Babies

Babies who are exposed to alcohol and drugs in the womb face a high risk of developing developmental issues, including stunted physical and emotional growth.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 out of every 33 babies is born with congenital disabilities, nationwide, each year. These babies may have neurological defects, body malformations and growth deficits caused by prenatal drug abuse or alcohol consumption.

Newborns whose mothers used drugs or alcohol during pregnancy may have:

  • Brain damage
  • Small heads
  • Low birth weight
  • Premature birth
  • Heart problems
  • Kidney issues
  • Seizures or convulsions
  • Poor feeding ability

The consequences of prenatal drug use often go beyond congenital disabilities. Drinking alcohol and using drugs during pregnancy can also lead to:

  • Sudden infant death syndrome
  • Miscarriage
  • Stillbirth
  • Prematurity

Two common drug-related conditions that newborn babies face are fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) and neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS).

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) describe a variety of physical, mental and behavioral conditions and learning disabilities that stem from prenatal alcohol use. Of these conditions, fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is one of the most understood.

Usually, FAS causes a constellation of symptoms, including growth deficits, infant facial malformations and central nervous system dysfunctioning, all of which can persist throughout childhood. Additionally, FAS can also lead to behavioral and intellectual disabilities such as hyperactivity, poor reasoning and a decreased ability to communicate in social situations.   

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) is a broad term for opioid withdrawal effects in newborns. This condition occurs from prenatal opioid use. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration refers to NAS more specifically as neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome when placing warning labels on prescription opioid bottles.

Babies who have NAS usually need immediate treatment (frequently with morphine) for opioid dependence and typically experience withdrawal symptoms like vomiting, low-grade fever, hyperirritability, tremors and poor sleep. Fortunately, NAS is treatable and does not usually have long-term consequences.

Clarifying Semantics: Babies With NAS Aren’t Born Addicted

Unfortunately, alarmist reporting surrounds conditions like NAS. According to a public letter from the International Drug Policy Consortium, “Newborn babies are NOT born ‘addicted’ and referring to newborns with NAS as ‘addicted’ is inaccurate, incorrect, and highly stigmatizing.” 

Babies who are born with NAS are usually only dependent on opioids for a short time and recover with treatment. For new mothers and babies to get the care they deserve, stigmatizing semantics about NAS cannot continue.

Treatment for Addiction During Pregnancy

If you or a loved one face a drug or alcohol use disorder and are currently pregnant or may become pregnant, healing is possible. Talk with your doctor about ways to taper your drug or alcohol use during pregnancy. You can also ask your friends or family to help keep you accountable.

Remember that if you face drug or alcohol addiction, your substance use disorder won’t go away on its own if you become pregnant. Drug or alcohol use disorders take more than willpower to overcome, and you may need to seek professional treatment. Rehab may seem daunting, especially during pregnancy, but don’t let any preconceived notions about rehab keep you from receiving the care you need.

While we do not currently treat pregnant women, The Recovery Village® representatives can assist you in finding treatment resources if you or someone you know is pregnant. Your call is toll-free and confidential. Call The Recovery Village® today at  866.267.6921.

The National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare. “Infants with Prenatal Substance Exposure.” (n.d.) Accessed April 2019.

March of Dimes. “Street Drugs and Pregnancy.” Last reviewed in November 2016. Accessed April 2019.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “A Collaborative Approach to the Treatment of Pregnant Women wiht Opioid Use Disorders.” Published in 2016. Accessed in April 2019.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol and Pregnancy Why Take the Risk?” Published in February 2016. Accessed in April 2019.

Ariadna Forray. “Substance use during pregnancy.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2016. Accessed in April 2019.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. “Alcohol- and Other Drug-Related Birth Defects Awareness Week.” Last updated in 2017. Accessed April 2019.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “Alcohol & Drug-Related Birth Defects Research at the NICHD.” Published in 2012. Accessed April 2019.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Dramatic Increases in Maternal Opioid Use and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.” Last updated January 2019. Accessed April 2019.

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