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Taking illegal drugs during pregnancy

Using illegal or street drugs during pregnancy can harm your unborn baby.

Cigarettes, alcohol or prescription drugs that you have not been prescribed may also be harmful.

If you use drugs, it's important to tackle this now that you're pregnant.

Do not stop taking drugs abruptly without seeking medical advice. There may be withdrawal problems or other side effects.

Drugs to avoid during pregnancy

The following drugs can harm you and your baby:

  • cigarettes and alcohol
  • sleeping tablets ('z-drugs') such as zolpidem and zopiclone
  • pain relief drugs such as codeine
  • cannabis
  • cocaine or heroin
  • 'psychoactive' drugs
  • sedatives such as benzodiazepines

Risks of drug use during pregnancy

All drugs pass through the placenta to the unborn baby.

This may cause a higher risk of:

  • miscarriage
  • bleeding in pregnancy
  • early labour
  • reduced supply of oxygen to the baby through the placenta

Effects on your newborn baby

In severe cases drug use can cause:

  • a higher risk of stillbirth
  • delays in your baby’s development
  • health problems such as asthma
  • cot death

You and your baby may be asked to stay longer in hospital to check if they need treatment for withdrawal symptoms.

Drug withdrawal in newborn babies

At birth the baby’s drug supply stops and the baby may go through a period of withdrawal. This is called Neonatal Abstinent Syndrome (NAS).

Signs of NAS include:

  • feeding difficulties (cannot suck or swallow properly)
  • sleeping difficulties (cannot settle or sleep after feed)
  • high pitch crying
  • irritability and restlessness
  • tremors
  • fever
  • vomiting and diarrhoea
  • a sore bottom (due to frequent dirty nappies)
  • weight loss

If your baby needs treatment such as medicine they may be transferred to the Special Care Baby Unit (SCBU). You can help to calm your baby during treatment by breastfeeding them and giving them skin-to-skin care.

Your midwife and doctor are used to looking after babies with drug withdrawal symptoms. They can offer support and advice.

Before becoming pregnant

If you take drugs and are planning to get pregnant, support is available to help you give up.

Start taking folic acid. Plan to stop drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes.

When you're pregnant

Take folic acid for the first 12 weeks of your pregnancy. This can help protect your baby from conditions such as spina bifida.

Find out which prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines are safe in pregnancy.

Over-the-counter medicines are medicine you buy from a pharmacy or shop without a prescription

Read advice on the effects of:

If illegal drugs are part of your life, getting help can improve the outcomes for you and your baby.

Where to get help

If you have a drug addiction, help is available from your GP or midwife.

In some maternity hospitals there are Drug Liaison Midwives who specialise in helping women with drug addictions to get help. They can offer support throughout your pregnancy.

Non-urgent advice: Get help with problem drugs and alcohol use

You can also visit - this will help to put you in touch with a treatment centre in your local area.

Page last reviewed: 1 December 2021
Next review due: 1 December 2024

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This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 8.