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Taking Drugs during Pregnancy

Pregnancy is a time of great change. If you are pregnant, or thinking about having a baby, it is important at this time to consider the types of drugs you or your partner might be taking that may have an effect on you or your pregnancy, or both. Do consult your doctor for professional advice.

The drugs that may be of concern include:

  • Alcohol

  • Tobacco

  • Caffeine

  • Complementary medicines, such as herbal preparations and nutritional supplements

  • “Over-the-counter” medicines, such as antacids, cold and ‘flu medicines, diet pills, laxatives and painkillers

  • Prescribed medicines, such as painkillers, tranquillisers and sleeping pills

  • Illegal drugs, such as Amphetamines, Cannabis, Cocaine, Ecstasy, GHB, hallucinogens and Heroin

  • Drugs used to treat opiate or alcohol dependence, such as Methadone, Buprenorphine and Naltrexone

  • Other substances, such as glues and aerosols (inhalants or volatile substances).

Below you will find information on the effects of drug use for women who are planning a pregnancy or who are already pregnant.

Why be concerned about alcohol and other drug use during pregnancy?

Drugs can be harmful to a developing foetus throughout the pregnancy. However the first three months are considered to be the time of highest risk because this is when the baby’s major organs and limbs are forming.

All drugs taken during pregnancy will reach the baby through the placenta. However, there can be great variation in babies’ responses to drugs, depending on the:

  • Type of drug taken—the baby’s response to a sedative drug will be different from its response to a stimulant such as caffeine or amphetamines.

  • How often the drug is used, how it is used and the amount taken.

  • Whether one or more drugs are used—combining drugs can increase or alter the effects of the drugs in unpredictable ways.

  • Individual baby’s response.

Planning your pregnancy

The first thing to do if you are planning to become pregnant is to seek expert advice from your doctor or other health care professional. They can assist you with information about the available health services and your choice in pregnancy care. They can also assist you in identifying and managing possible problems for you and your baby, based on your personal and family history.

Pre-conception care can be as important for men as for women. Some medications, including certain medicines available over the counter, are known to reduce sperm count. It also takes sperm three months to develop so they can fertilise an egg, so if you are concerned about the presence of drugs in your system, it might be wise to abstain from all drugs for at least three months before you attempt to conceive. However it is important to consult your doctor or other health professional before you stop.

There are a few simple steps both you and your partner can take to improve your health before you become pregnant and increase the chances of a healthy conception and baby:

  • Eat a well-balanced diet and drink plenty of water.

  • If you are a smoker, ask your doctor or other health professional for information about quitting.

  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and other drugs.

  • Seek counselling if you need assistance to reduce or stop using alcohol or other drugs.

  • Unless specifically recommended by your doctor or health practitioner, avoid taking medication, including those purchased over-the-counter.

  • If you are taking complementary medicines, make sure you tell your prescriber that you are planning to become pregnant.

  • Get plenty of rest and exercise.

  • Avoid stress.

  • Women can start taking a folic acid supplement when planning to become pregnant, and continue for three months into the pregnancy.

  • Consult your doctor or health practitioner.

Managing your pregnancy and drug use

If you haven’t already done so, you should consult your doctor or health care professional as soon as you find out you are—or suspect you are—pregnant. Your doctor or health care professional can assist you with information about services and discuss your choices in pregnancy care. If you are using alcohol or other drugs, your baby will need to be carefully monitored during your pregnancy.

It is important to tell your pregnancy care provider if you:

  • Are taking any medications, whether prescribed or obtained over-the-counter

  • Are taking any complementary medicines, such as herbal preparations, homeopathic remedies, or nutritional or other supplements

  • Smoke cigarettes, even if it is only socially or occasionally

  • Drink alcohol, even if it is only socially or occasionally

  • Are taking any other drugs, legal or illegal, even if it is only socially or occasionally

  • Have concerns about any medications or drugs you are taking, or have been taking.

Reducing the risk of complications of drug use in pregnancy

Two of the most common complications of drug use during pregnancy are premature labour and small birth size.

Babies born prematurely or with a low birth weight are at increased risk of illness and may experience a number of complications.

Some things you can do to reduce the risk of complications to yourself and your baby include:

  • Speaking to your doctor or health care professional to discuss your use of medications, alcohol or other drugs.

  • Attending regular pregnancy care as soon as you know you are pregnant.

  • Consulting with your doctor or health care professional before you attempt to stop or reduce your drug use.

  • Contacting your doctor or health care professional if you experience withdrawal symptoms.

Keeping up to date

New information about drugs and their effects is being discovered every day through ongoing scientific research. The best way to keep up to date is to see your doctor or other health practitioner. Remember, there is no substitute for specific medical advice to suit your particular needs.

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