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Using Drugs While Pregnant Statistics and Facts: 25 Risks

Discover the many risks associated with substance abuse during pregnancy - statistics and facts.

Becoming pregnant and preparing for motherhood is a tremendous excitement for many women. But it’s crucial that mothers are extremely careful while pregnant to keep both themselves and the baby safe.

In the United States, about 5% of women use at least one addictive drug during pregnancy. In this exploration of taking drugs while pregnant, 25 statistics and facts shed light on the impact of substance abuse during pregnancy. We aim to inform mothers, healthcare professionals, and concerned family members about the consequences of drug use during pregnancy.

Continue reading to learn more about various topics, including the prevalence of drug use during pregnancy, its effects on the fetus and child development, and signs of drug use.

5 Substance Abuse During Pregnancy Statistics

To begin, below are five key statistics about abusing substances during pregnancy. If you want more information on drug use, we have 25 in-depth facts to share below.

  1. In the U.S., 5% of women reportedly use at least one addictive drug during pregnancy.
  2. Almost 3% of pregnant women in the U.S. reportedly use marijuana daily or almost daily.
  3. Using marijuana while pregnant can increase the risk of stillbirth by 230 percent.
  4. Children exposed to drugs in utero can have learning difficulties during their education.
  5. Signs that someone is struggling with substance abuse during pregnancy include having bloodshot eyes or enlarged pupils.

25 Statistics and Facts About Drugs While Pregnant

It’s important to know about drug use while pregnant so that you know what to avoid or how to help someone who is struggling with this issue. This comprehensive section uncovers 25 essential risks of using drugs while pregnant – with statistics and facts.

Substance Abuse During Pregnancy

First, let’s explore the scope of substance abuse during pregnancy (statistics and facts), examining its prevalence and any ties to socioeconomic factors in the U.S.

  1. Five percent: About 5% of pregnant women take at least one addictive drug (1). Another study found that in 2020, between 8-11% of expecting women aged 15 to 44 used substances such as tobacco or alcohol (2).
  2. Marijuana use: In 2020, almost 3% of pregnant women in the U.S. used marijuana every day or almost every day. 8% of pregnant women used it in the past month of this particular study (3).
  3. Common illegal drugs: Common illegal drugs that pregnant women may take include marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy, molly, heroin, or over-the-counter (OCT) drugs.
  4. Cocaine use: It’s hard to decipher how many pregnant women use cocaine while pregnant since those who do are more likely to avoid prenatal care (4). However, it’s known that pregnant women who use cocaine are more likely to use other drugs, including alcohol, and have worse nutrition, all of which can harm the fetus.
  5. Opioid use: The most recent numbers show that the number of pregnant women who had an opioid-related diagnosis during pregnancy increased by 131% from 2010 to 2017 (5). In 2019, 7% of women self-reported using prescribed opioids as pain relief during pregnancy. About 20% of those admitted to misusing the opioids.
  6. Demographics of women who use drugs: A study found that 67.6% of pregnant women who used nonmedical drugs (excluding marijuana) were non-Hispanic White (6). 61% had a high school diploma or less. Over 72% had a household income of $20,000 or less yearly. To conclude, pregnant women who used drugs were typically of lower socioeconomic status and had mental health challenges.

Effects of Drugs During Pregnancy

Drugs are not safe during pregnancy because of the effect they can have on the baby, the mother, and the overall pregnancy. Even legal drugs, like caffeine, can be dangerous. But we’re going to look at the effect that illegal drugs can have on pregnancy, including cocaine, fentanyl, heroin, and opioids.

  1. Problems with the placenta: Street drugs can cause issues with the placenta, such as placenta abruption, which is when the placenta separates from the uterus wall during pregnancy (7). There is a significant link between cocaine use and placenta problems. Women who abused cocaine during pregnancy were 58% more likely to have placenta-associated symptoms compared to pregnant women who didn’t (8).
  2. Preterm labor: Women who use street drugs are more likely to give birth before full-term. One study found that 11.6% of women who used marijuana had a preterm birth versus 24.3% of those who used cocaine (9). This is compared to 6.7% of women who did not use drugs. Pregnant women who used cocaine or polysubstance were most likely to give birth before 32 weeks.
  3. Risk of stillbirth: Women who use drugs during pregnancy are most likely to have a stillbirth. Those who use marijuana are 2.3 times more likely to have a stillbirth (10). Those who use a stimulant, marijuana, or prescribed pain reliever are 2.2 times more likely to have a stillbirth.
  4. Unsafe for mothers: Using drugs during pregnancy can increase a pregnant woman’s chance of a heart attack, stroke, seizure, or respiratory failure (11). She is also at greater risk for blood infections, heart and skin infections, hepatitis, anemia, and other infectious diseases (12).
  5. Risk of miscarriage: Cocaine and meth have a significant link to early miscarriage in pregnancy. These drugs are also linked to low birth weight and babies who have difficulty feeding.
  6. Low birthweight: Women who take drugs during pregnancy are more likely to give birth to a baby weighing less than five pounds and eight ounces. They are also more likely to give birth to babies with a reduced head circumference.
  7. Congenital disabilities: Babies born to women who took drugs during pregnancy are more likely to have birth defects. Drugs that cause this are called teratogens, which disrupt the healthy and normal development of a fetus (13). These birth defects are sometimes called Fetal Drug Syndrome (FDS).

Effects of Drug Exposure on Child Development

We’re going to investigate some of the effects that drug use during pregnancy can have on a child after it’s born, whether that’s within the first few days or later in life.

  1. Heart defects: Children born to mothers who took drugs during pregnancy are more likely to have congenital heart defects. This is a condition that a child is born with, and it can affect the heart chambers, septum, heart valves, or arteries and veins near the heart (14).
  2. Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS): NAS is a condition that’s caused by drug withdrawal from drugs that the baby was exposed to in the womb (15). This mostly includes opioids, but it can also be caused by antidepressants, sleeping pills, and barbiturates (sedative-hypnotic medications). Symptoms for the baby include tremors, seizures, fussiness, fevers, diarrhea, sneezing, breathing problems, and more. Symptoms can last for up to six months.
  3. Learning difficulties: There is evidence that children exposed to drugs in utero, like nicotine, marijuana, and meth, can have learning difficulties during their school years (16).
  4. Effect on toddlers: Toddlers born with prenatal drug exposure are more likely to have challenges with their learning and behavior. This includes hyperactivity, longer tantrums, and a hard time with transitions.
  5. ADHD: Adults who were exposed to drugs in utero are more likely to need medication for issues like ADHD.
  6. Disrupted language development: Drugs, like cocaine, are linked to disrupted language development throughout early adolescence (17). However, it may pick back up during the teenage years.

Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse In Pregnancy

Are you worried about someone you love misusing drugs during their pregnancy? Recognize the critical signs and symptoms of substance abuse during pregnancy and learn how to identify drug use in expectant mothers.

  1. Struggling with normal activities: Someone who is abusing drugs may have problems with their regular activities such as work or school.
  2. They look different: They might look different, have lost weight, or be unkempt.
  3. Behavior change: Look out for someone acting withdrawn, fatigued, depressed, or hostile.
  4. Heroin signs: Signs of heroin abuse show up as behavioral, physical, mental, and social. A person might have needle pricks on the arms or legs or be wearing long clothing (even in summer) to hide the marks (18). They may have a dry mouth, bruising, scabbing, hallucinations, paranoia, mood swings, and depression.
  5. Risky behaviors: People who use drugs often engage in risky behaviors and activities due to a lack of clear thinking. This can include reckless driving or having unprotected sex.
  6. Physical signs: Other physical signs include bloodshot eyes or enlarged pupils. You may even smell weird odors on their breath or clothing.

Getting Help

If someone you know is using drugs while pregnant, it’s important to consult their healthcare provider or your local health department. You may also want to call a substance abuse hotline, such as SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services) at 1-800-622-HELP. This service is available in English and Spanish.

I Just Found Out I’m Pregnant, and I’ve Been Taking Drugs

If you’ve just found out that you’re pregnant and know that you’ve been taking drugs during the first weeks of pregnancy, you must let your healthcare provider know as soon as possible. They will provide a thorough checkup to ensure both you and the baby are safe and healthy going forward.

If the drugs are prescribed legal drugs, don’t stop taking them until you’ve discussed this with your healthcare provider. Coming off them abruptly could cause withdrawal symptoms.

If you feel you have a drug addiction or dependence, consider counseling or joining a support group to get you through the pregnancy. A good support system, such as a close friend or family member, can help you, too.

If you took a drug early in the pregnancy, such as before implantation, and it was just a one-off, don’t panic. It’s unlikely your baby will have been impacted. But let your healthcare provider know.


How Long Do Drugs Stay In a Fetus’ System?

It depends on the drug. For example, cocaine can be found in meconium for up to 20 weeks after the mother has used the drug (19). For babies suffering from NAS, the symptoms usually last for about one week, but some babies can have symptoms between four and six months.

Can Drugs Affect Pregnancy Before Implantation?

Taking drugs and alcohol before implantation likely doesn’t affect the fetus, but it can affect the pregnancy. It can cause difficulty getting pregnant, infertility, and even lead to miscarriage. Women who want to get pregnant should cease drug use (including unsafe legal drugs) for three to six months before trying to conceive (20).

Is It Illegal To Use Drugs While Pregnant?

Illegal drugs are illegal whether a woman is pregnant or not.

Prescribed drugs are legal to use during pregnancy.

Overall, whether or not it’s legal to use drugs while pregnant depends on the jurisdiction; some places have specific laws and policies about using substances while pregnant, whereas other areas don’t.

There is no federal law or national punishment in the U.S. against using substances during pregnancy. However, many healthcare providers will carry out mandatory testing, treatment, counseling, and other preventative measures against drug use.

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About the Author

Beth McCallum

Beth McCallum is a Scottish freelance writer & book blogger with a degree in creative writing, journalism and English literature. She is a mum to a young boy, and believes that it truly takes a village. When she’s not parenting, writing about parenting, or working, she can be found reading, working on her novel, taking photos, playing board games or wandering through the countryside with her family.