How substance abuse affects your unborn baby | Western Cape Government

How substance abuse affects your unborn baby

Following a healthy lifestyle while pregnant and making informed choices is important for you and your unborn child’s health.

This means visiting your doctor for regular check-ups, avoiding alcohol, drugs and tobacco products and ensuring that you and your unborn child receive all the nutrients you need to thrive.

Avoiding substance use during pregnancy  Mom and newborn baby in hospital.

The effects associated with drugs can be harmful and even more so to pregnant mothers and their unborn babies.

Babies who have been exposed to drugs and alcohol while in the womb may have long-term physical and psychological damage.

Effects of substance use during pregnancy 

In a recent Safe Passage Study by the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Faculty of Medicine and Health Science at Stellenbosch University, nearly 6 000  pregnant moms from Bishop Lavis and surrounding areas’ pregnancy journeys were followed and documented.

The moms reported using the following substances during their pregnancy:

  • Alcohol (39%)
  • Tobacco smoking (56%)
  • Marijuana (11%)
  • Methamphetamine (6%)
  • Hookah pipe (21%)

Professor Hein Odendal at Stellenbosch University says that although there’s very limited information available on antenatal (before birth) substance abuse cases in South Africa, the associations of the use of these substances with poor foetal and neonatal outcomes are currently being studied in great detail.

“One of the main causes of stillbirth in the Western Cape is placental abruption - the partial or complete detachment of the placenta before birth. Placenta abruption occurred in 49 (0.9%) pregnant women. Information on methamphetamine use was available in 40 of these women. Placental abruption occurred in 5.4% of methamphetamine users, which is 6 times more than the general prevalence rate of 0.9%. Methamphetamine use was reported in 20 % of women who had had an abruption,” he said.

According to Dr Max Kroon, Medical Specialist at Mowbray Maternity Hospital (MMH), they’ve seen a dramatic increase in maternal substance abuse cases at MMH since 2005.

“While it’s true we see many substance-exposed babies at MMH (commonly crystal meth, heroin and alcohol) it’s only the heroin-exposed babies that are true ‘drug addicts’ who have a neonatal abstinence syndrome or withdrawals which is managed with opiate replacement therapy. The others tend to growth restricted and have quantifiable brain changes,” he said.

There’s help available Baby going for a check up at dr.

Short term management of substance-exposed babies isn’t particularly complicated but the management of the family social issues is very complex and prolonged.

Muriel Johnstone, a social worker at the Department of Health explains: “Social workers working in the Neonatal and Obstetric Departments are involved in providing intervention to pregnant patients who use substances.”

She says, antenatally, patients are provided with brief motivational counselling following a thorough assessment where they’re appropriately referred for detoxification or rehabilitation.

However, this is dependent on the type of drug which is used and the stage of pregnancy.

“Rehabilitation facilities within the patient’s residential area are sought and a referral is provided and on-going intervention is carried out antenatally to monitor the patient’s progress,” Johnstone added.

Free random drug testing is done postnatally at MMH to assist in determining the potential risk to the baby. If there’s any potential risk to the baby because of the birthmother’s substance use, family members are consulted to determine whether the baby can be discharged to the birthmother - under family supervision.

“In such cases, a Form 22 - statutory report is sent to the Child Protection Organisation in the patient’s area. If however the family also raises concern, the baby will be kept in the Neonatal Unit until external social workers have completed an investigation and they have provided a discharge plan for the child. The care of these children is then monitored by the external Child Protection Organisation,” Johnsone added.  

Beat your addiction 

If you’re pregnant and struggling with drug addiction, it’s important to get help. Contact our substance abuse programme to receive professional help in order to plan a course of action that will benefit you and your unborn baby.

Visit the local offices of the Department of Social Development, or our treatment facilities or call 0800 220 250 for assistance.

The content on this page was last updated on 31 January 2019