Maternal Substance Abuse and Birth Defects

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In current years, drug use during pregnancy has demonstrated a worrisome increase. Abuse of drugs such as cigarettes and alcohol is widely practiced by expectant mothers, and the situation is often worsened by not only pregnancy-related health issues but also environmental stressors. Addiction is one of the primary factors that influence increased usage of prescribed drugs during pregnancy. Although most expectant mothers do everything possible to protect the unborn child, millions of infants are exposed to harmful drugs like alcohol, tobacco in addition to drugs during the period of development in the womb. Unfortunately, the maternal substance abuse influences the unborn child to diverse severe health consequences that lead to birth defects such as low birth weight and miscarriage. The paper seeks to demonstrate how smoking and use of alcohol and drugs by expectant mothers cause birth defects.

            Use of tobacco contributes to low birth-weight of infants. According to Visscher et al. (1065), exposure to tobacco increases the risk of low birth-weight infants. Their finding showed that use of cocaine and marijuana during pregnancy rarely affects the physical growth as well as the development of the unborn child when compared with tobacco. Based on this, they argued that cigarette smoking had a significant effect on the growth and development of the unborn child. Similarly, Visscher et al. learned from their study that mothers of small weight infants are more likely to be smokers when compared with mothers of infants with normal weight. According to Visscher et al. (1066), 15% of preterm births, 30% of low birth-weight infants, and sharp increase of perinatal mortality are linked to smoking by women aged between 15 and 44 years. Low birth-weight is the primary cause of neonatal mortality in developed countries such as the United States (Visscher et al. 1067). Apart from causing intrauterine growth retardation, low birth-weight exposes the infants to later chronic disease, cognitive impairment in addition to developmental deficits. Thus, smoking of cigarettes increases the risk of low birth-weights of infants.

            The increasing usage of drugs including prescribed drugs by expectant mothers impairs with the development of the infant’s brain. The abuse of drugs is often as a result of pregnancy-related conditions and sometimes to conditions not associated with pregnancy (Axelsdottir et al. 139). According to Thompson, Levitt, and Stanwood (3), legal drugs such as nicotine and alcohol are capable of resulting in severe complications on brain development when compared with illicit drugs like cocaine. However, they note that exposure to cocaine targets dopamine receptors to trigger specific reactions such as feeling of joy. Dopamine receptors are located in the brainstem, outside the CNS, hypothalamus as well as prefrontal cortex (Thompson, Levitt, and Stanwood 3). The dopamine system usually develops in early period of gestation, evidencing their manipulation effect in gestation. It is as a result of this that children exposed to cocaine are believed to be cognitively impaired besides emotionally disrupted. That is, exposure to cocaine exposes the infants to developmental complication that correlates to attention deficit disorder (Thompson, Levitt, and Stanwood 4). Equally, Bowman and Vaidya (2) argue that increasing use of antithyroid drugs such as carbimazole result in congenital anomalies in children exposed to these drugs before birth. Based on these findings, it is evident that use of drugs impairs with brain development besides causing congenital anomalies in infants.

            Equally, exposure of the unborn child to alcohol results in congenital cardiac defects and mental retardation. According to the study by Mateja et al. (29), women who binge drink as well as smoke 3 months before pregnancy increasingly expose their children to congenital cardiac defect when compared to women only smoke 3 months prior to getting pregnant. Similarly, they learned that high episodes of exclusive binge drinking three months before conception increased the likelihood of the born children developing this defect. Based on their findings, Mateja et al. (29) argued that the interaction of carcinogens and teratogens such as alcohol and cigarette in early periods of fetal development influenced the occurrence of congenital cardiac defects. Likewise, Mateja et al. (33) learned that binge drinking some months before pregnancy increased the risk of neurobehavior deficits in infants. They also argue that this type of drinking impairs with the developmental changes in unborn child’s electroencephalograms besides reducing the circumference of the infant’s head (Mateja et al. 33). Moreover, studies note that excessive drinking of alcohol increases the occurrence of preterm birth even when the expectant mothers stop drinking before entering the second trimester (Mateja et al. 34). Thus, exposure to alcohol increases the occurrence of congenital cardiac defects neurobehavior defects in unborn children.      

            In conclusion, abuse of substances such as cigarettes, cocaine, alcohol, and drugs by expectant mothers exposes the infants to many severe birth defects. Smoking of cigarettes contributes to occurrence of low birth-weight infants whereas abuse of drugs such as cocaine causes brain developmental defects that are evidenced by cognitive impairments and emotional disruptions in the affected children. Use of alcohol by the expectant mothers increases the risk of congenital heart defects in addition to neutobehavior deficits in infants. Excessive drinking by pregnant mothers also affects the infant’s development changes besides increases the occurrence of preterm birth.         

Works Cites

Axelsdottir, Thury O., et al. “Drug Use during Early Pregnancy: Cross-Sectional Analysis from the Childbirth and Health Study in Primary Care in Iceland.” Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care, vol. 32, no. 3, Sept. 2014, pp. 139–145. EBSCOhost, doi:10.3109/02813432.2014.965884.

Bowman, Pamela and Vaidya Bijay. Suspected Spontaneous Reports of Birth Defects in the UK            Associated with the Use of Carbimazole and Propylthiouracil in Pregnancy. Journal of             Thyroid Research, 2011.

Mateja, Walter A., et al. “The Association Between Maternal Alcohol Use and Smoking in Early Pregnancy and Congenital Cardiac Defects.” Journal of Women’s Health (15409996), vol. 21, no. 1, Jan. 2012, pp. 26–34. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1089/jwh.2010.2582.

Thompson, Barbara, Levitt Pat, and Stanwood Gredd. Prenatal exposure to drugs: effects on        brain development and implications for policy and education. Nat Rev Neurosci, 10(4):          303–312.

Visscher, Wendy et al. The Impact of Smoking and Other Substance Use by Urban Women on      the Birthweight of Their Infants. Substance Use & Misuse, 38 (8); 1063–1093.

August 21, 2023




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