The Dangers of Using Cocaine While Pregnant

Medically Reviewed

Cocaine’s popularity lures people from all walks of life to use it, including women who are expecting a child.

The drug, made from the leaves of the South American coca plant, does not discriminate among users. Some pregnant cocaine users seek out this addictive stimulant just as others do, snorting the powder through their noses, rubbing it onto their gums, or injecting it into their veins. Cocaine can also be smoked or taken by mouth.

Many people are hooked on cocaine because the drug spikes the brain’s dopamine levels, affecting its reward center. High levels of this brain chemical bring on feelings of euphoria and increased energy that can last just minutes to an hour, depending on how much is taken and how it is taken.

The highs, however, are often short-lived, which is why many people use cocaine multiple times in a short time span. Over time, such binges cripple the brain from producing dopamine naturally. This leads users to consume more of the drug to get the same effects, which builds their tolerance and puts them on the path to cocaine addiction.

Cocaine use can also cause:

  • Extreme excitability
  • Increased alertness
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Paranoia

The drug acts on the body’s central nervous system, speeding up a person’s breathing rate and heart rate, and raising their body temperature and blood pressure. Other short-term effects include hypersensitivity to sight, sound, and touch and restlessness. Long-term effects include malnourishment, as cocaine reduces appetite, and loss of smell and severe bowel decay, among many others.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that about 5 percent of pregnant women use one or more addictive substances. It is estimated there are about 750,000 cocaine-exposed pregnancies annually.

What Happens When A Pregnant Woman Uses Cocaine?

As the American Pregnancy Association explains, when a pregnant woman uses cocaine, the substance crosses the placenta and enters the baby’s circulation. The placenta is the organ attached to the womb’s lining during pregnancy. It keeps the baby’s blood supply separate from the mother’s and delivers oxygen and nutrients to the baby.

The baby’s mother is also affected by cocaine use in ways she may not realize, from how she physically feels to how her pregnancy develops. According to NIDA, using the drug may worsen the effects that come with pregnancy in general.

“Cocaine use during pregnancy is associated with maternal migraines and seizures, premature membrane rupture, and separation of the placental lining from the uterus prior to delivery,” it writes.

Cardiovascular changes can lead to serious problems, from serious complications with high blood pressure to a spontaneous miscarriage and preterm labor. Women who used cocaine during their pregnancy may even have a harder time delivering their child.

It is important to note that drugs, both legal and illegal, can directly affect the health of a fetus. Pregnant women are advised to refrain from all drug and alcohol use. The list of harmful or potentially harmful substances is nearly endless, so any substance, even prescribed medications as well as those bought over the counter, can affect an unborn fetus.

Always check first with a trusted health professional or licensed medical specialist who can give guidance.

Cocaine Can Affect The Unborn, Newborns

It has not been determined how much cocaine would cause birth defects for a fetus that’s been exposed to the stimulant. Still, health experts warn that the drug should be avoided in any amount or form. This includes crack cocaine, a potent, crystallized version of cocaine that produces strong, short-lived highs.

One reason its use is strongly discouraged is cocaine stays in the body of a fetus longer than that of an adult. That said, there are real dangers that happen when pregnant mothers use cocaine. Here are a few:


Using the substance during the early months of pregnancy can increase the chances of having a miscarriage, according to the Organization of Teratology Information Services. A miscarriage is when a fetus is lost before it can live outside of its mother womb, which is about 22 weeks to 24 weeks of gestation.

If cocaine use occurs later in the pregnancy, the drug can cause placental abruption, a condition in which the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus before the woman gives birth. It causes severe bleeding, preterm birth, and fetal death.

Premature Birth

A 2011 Reuters news report highlighted a study that explored the effects of cocaine use on newborn babies. Researchers found that such use was linked to having babies too early. They  reviewed data from previous studies and reported that babies born to women who had used cocaine also had a one in three chance of being born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. They defined cocaine use during pregnancy as any use of the substance at all, according to the Reuters report. A normal birth term lasts from 37 weeks to 41 weeks.

Birth Defects

Frequent use of cocaine during pregnancy also increases the risks of birth defects, such as low birth weight and smaller head circumferences. This condition is known as microcephaly.

The study mentioned above also noted that women who used cocaine while expecting had about a one in three chance of having an underweight infant. According to the article, women who didn’t use cocaine had a 1 in 10 chance. Underweight babies usually weigh less than 5.5 pounds.

Babies born to women who are cocaine users may be shorter in length than babies born to mothers who do not use cocaine. NIDA reports that scientists are finding that babies exposed to cocaine during their fetal development may lead to deficits that children may experience later in life.

Those complications include long-term behavioral problems, reduced cognitive performance, information processing, and problems with attention and concentration.

Other Problems

Women who use cocaine could experience stillbirth, the death or loss of a baby before or during delivery, as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to Healthline, a baby that’s been exposed to cocaine is at increased risk of the following:

  • Brain damage
  • Deformed limbs
  • Stroke
  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
  • Poor growth (delayed grown)
  • Abnormalities in the reproductive system, urinary system
  • Feeding problems

Cocaine use also shouldn’t occur during breastfeeding, as the drug can be given to the baby through breastmilk.

Getting Help

Women who are pregnant and struggling with substance use need to know they are not alone. Seeking treatment is important to the welfare of both the mother and child.

Pregnant women are reluctant to report their substance use because they fear social stigma or losing custody of their children, as NIDA reports. Despite those concerns, moms-to-be who struggle with substance use are still encouraged to seek the help they need. If not, they face a life full of risk and uncertainty.

“Cocaine-using pregnant women must receive appropriate medical and psychological care—including addiction treatment—to reduce these risks,” the agency advises.

For recovery efforts to be effective, pregnant women who are using should be honest with their doctor so that they can receive the best care. Finding a treatment facility that specializes in substance use treatment is important. A program that understands the unique needs of a person recovering from maternity addiction is ideal.

Health care professionals agree that prenatal care is key to helping both the mother and the unborn baby. Research has shown that a woman who stops using drugs and alcohol early in her pregnancy increases her chances of having a healthy baby.


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