If you're pregnant or trying to get pregnant, or if you know someone who is, there are several important points to remember:
The U.S. Surgeon General and other healthcare professionals encourage women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant, as well as those who are breast-feeding, to abstain from all types of alcohol - beer, wine, wine coolers and distilled liquor - during this critical time. It's best also to avoid the use of tobacco products and illicit drugs and to follow the doctor's orders with regard to other prescription and over-the-counter medications.
The use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs during pregnancy or while breast-feeding is a dangerous combination with serious negative consequences.
The Dangers of Alcohol Use
When a pregnant woman drinks, the alcohol moves directly through the placenta to the unborn baby. Because the baby's developing body is unable to process the alcohol, it is broken down at a much slower rate than in the mother's body. As a result, the alcohol stays in the baby's bloodstream longer and at higher levels, often causing lifelong damage known as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). In addition, alcohol use during pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage, babies born with low birth weights (less than 5.5 pounds), stillbirth and death in early infancy.
Although there is no proof that a father's drinking can cause FAS, evidence increasingly suggests that heavy alcohol use among males might adversely affect pregnancy and birth outcomes by lowering the level of the male hormone known as testosterone, which can reduce sperm counts and lead to possible infertility. As a precaution, many groups encourage both men and women to abstain from drinking during this time as a way to avoid potential problems. It's also easier for the woman to abstain when her partner is willing to do the same.
The Problems of FAS
FAS is the leading known cause of mental retardation. It is an irreversible, lifelong condition found among babies whose mothers drank alcohol during pregnancy. Birth defects associated with FAS include head and facial deformities, stunted growth and learning disabilities.
While the most severe cases of FAS are detected immediately at birth, many problems associated with FAS remain undiscovered until later in life when a child begins to attend school. These include attention problems, learning disabilities and other types of behavioral problems.
The Dangers of Tobacco Use
Women who smoke during pregnancy are at far greater risk of experiencing problems, including having babies with low birth weight, the single most common cause of death and disease among infants. Pregnant smokers also run the risk of having babies whose physical and intellectual growth is below normal.
In addition, pregnant women who smoke are at greater risk of having miscarriages, complications during pregnancy and premature deliveries.
Similarly, babies and young children of parents who smoke suffer major risks from exposure to the toxic chemicals found in secondhand smoke. Specifically, the children are at increased risk of experiencing respiratory tract infections, such as pneumonia and bronchitis; middle-ear infections; asthma attacks; chronic coughing; and wheezing.
More recent studies have linked Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) or "crib death" to infants whose mothers smoked during pregnancy or around their babies after birth.
The Dangers of Marijuana Use
As with other drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco, the chemicals found in marijuana enter the baby's body directly when a woman smokes during pregnancy or while breast-feeding, causing toxic effects in the baby. In addition, marijuana use among pregnant women increases the mother's heart rate and blood pressure, which in turn reduces the rate of blood flow to the baby.
Women who smoke marijuana during pregnancy are likely to have babies who are born prematurely and small for their age. Marijuana-exposed babies often experience behavioral problems, central nervous system disorders, tremors and jitters. In addition, they are often difficult to comfort.
The Dangers of Cocaine Use
Cocaine use during the early months of pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage. When used later in pregnancy, cocaine use increases the risk of premature labor and stillbirth. It also can cause an unborn baby to experience a stroke, resulting in irreversible brain damage.
Research also suggests that cocaine-exposed babies are more likely than other babies to be born with low birth weight, which greatly increases their risk of death and disease. These babies are at an increased risk of experiencing lifelong disabilities, including mental retardation, cerebral palsy, and vision and hearing problems. In addition, they often experience problems with reflexes, attention, mood, eating and sleeping, and are at an increased risk of dying from SIDS.
The Risk of Prosecution
Not only is it dangerous for pregnant women to use alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, but the use of illegal drugs may subject them to criminal prosecution in South Carolina.
If a pregnant woman reveals that she has been using illegal drugs, she may be given the opportunity to receive treatment to address her problem. In addition, she can receive educational services to help her understand the effects of her behavior on her unborn baby, her family and other members of her household.
If the mother successfully completes the required services, she may avoid criminal prosecution.
Prevention Is the Key
Birth defects and other problems caused by alcohol, tobacco and other drugs are completely preventable. Women who smoke, drink or use other drugs should stop before they become pregnant or delay pregnancy until they are certain they can completely avoid all use of these substances. The health of their babies depends on it.
Where to Go for Help
Women who need help with a problem should contact the county alcohol and drug abuse authority serving their community. These local agencies provide a wide range of services to address problems related to the use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.
For more information about how to prevent alcohol and other drug related birth defects, or to find out where to go for help, call 1-888-SC PREVENTS.