Drug use: recommendations for pregnant women

Both recreational and prescription drugs can affect the foetus in many different ways. This section refers to psychostimulants and mood-alerting drugs.

There is no evidence that recreational or street drugs are safe at any time during pregnancy.  All can potentially affect the baby and cause harm.  Drug use can damage the health of a pregnant woman both directly and indirectly, can cause complications during pregnancy and can damage the foetus. Drug use in pregnancy has been associated with premature birth, low birth weight, placental abruption, neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), admission to a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), and an increased risk of still birth and neonatal death. Drug use in pregnancy is closely linked to poverty and deprivation, which can have a negative impact on health outcomes for the mother and child, and which are therefore factors that contribute to health inequalities. 

Pregnancy can act as a strong incentive for a woman to make a positive change in behaviour and lifestyle. It is important that this is both recognised and supported by early years and health practitioners who work with pregnant women.

It is important for practitioners, whether health professionals or other early years practitioners, to contextualise drug use within what may be a multiple and complex risks issue. It is important to consider a woman’s whole experience and the social factors that may have an impact – not just drug use in isolation. For this, a holistic and person-centred approach is advisable, linking women to the tailored pregnancy support they need, as well as providing information regarding the potential harm of continued use and unmodified behaviour.

For women using drugs, specialist support should be provided in addition to antenatal care, for example through an alcohol and drugs liaison nurse. Practitioners have a responsibility to support women and see that they are provided with services that can help them protect their babies.

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