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How Drugs and Alcohol Affect Pregnancy and a Developing Child Research Paper

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Updated: Oct 19th, 2018


Alcohol and substance abuse during pregnancy are famous for the adverse effects they have on the fetal development during gestation. A lot of research has been conducted on this relationship and none so far has come up with any positive effects of alcohol on the growth or development of an unborn child of an alcoholic or substance abusing pregnant woman.

Many people abuse various drugs throughout their lives including cocaine, methamphetamine, tobacco, prescription opiate, marijuana, and alcohol among others. However, most researchers seem more inclined to conduct studies on the effects of alcohol abuse than of any other drug, with tobacco being second in popularity.

The reasons for this trend in research could be that alcohol’s effects are easily identifiable, especially since they are embodied in a condition known as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, (FASD), which outlines a range of varying health disorders in newborn babies because of prenatal exposure to alcohol.

Among these are; Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), which affects children whose mothers consumed alcohol throughout most of the pregnancy, and Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE), which are individual or separate symptoms of FAS, but are manifested in children whose mothers either drank less amounts or during specific semesters.

Consequently, such children will exhibit a range of deficits in growth and development, but not to the full-blown level or combinations as FAS symptoms. The mothers may have consumed a lot of alcohol during the first semester only, which results in distorted facial features and retarded brain development.

This paper will conduct a literature review of most of the studies that have been conducted in this field and further summarizing from them the adverse effects of exposing unborn babies to alcohol and drug abuse. It is important to note that such effects carry on into adulthood, although the physical manifestations are somewhat ameliorated during puberty spurts. However, mental deficits remain painfully obvious throughout the person’s life.


This paper intends to bring to the awareness of pregnant women and their families the dangers associated with exposing themselves and their unborn children to both alcohol and substance abuse. Most of the research conducted in this field of study has been fragmented and disconnected from related research.

Therefore, it is the intention of the paper to link all these studies in a bid to generate a comprehensive display of both substance abuse and alcoholism during pregnancy and the effects attached to this form of deviance. In addition to pointing out the morphological and Central Nervous System’s (CNS) shortcomings in such a child, the paper also intends to touch on the psychological harm that comes with such a condition, and its strain on the mother-child relationship.


The aim of such a display of adverse effects is to provide the public with comprehensive insight into what happens when one abuses any drug during pregnancy. Most FAS conditions have been diagnosed in children of young teenage mothers (16-22). The presumption behind these diagnoses is that these youth are not prepared to handle the responsibilities of child-care, right from the carrying of pregnancies to term.

Consequently, they engage in binge drinking and substance abuse either to rebel or to cope with the stigma and rejection that is associated with pregnancy at this age. Mothers do not know the damage they are doing to the children in their womb, and this paper aims at creating this much-needed awareness.

With knowledge comes empowerment, if they knowingly abuse drugs after glimpsing at the probable effect, it will not be in ignorance. Secondly, this study hopes to put together the propositions of previous research on how to counter the problem of fetal exposure to drugs. It will compile the proposals of past researchers and consequently have reformists adopt some of them during policy making to alleviate this problem from the society.


I will compile the findings of related research while including the disclaimers given by such researchers over the accuracy of their findings. This includes indicating whether any steps were taken to eliminate other confounding variables such as post-natal exposures to socioeconomic difficulties and family problems, as well as mothers’ age and quality of antenatal care allocated to the unborn infant.

Next, I will categorize the effects of substance abuse based on the drug in question across the board, i.e., I will combine all research that has been conducted on effects of tobacco for instance, then move on to those of cocaine, and so on.

In other words, this paper will pick on the strengths of every study and avoid overlapping shortcomings, making it very reliable. For those studies with similar findings, they shall not all be included. The vein of the findings shall be adopted, and the different sources shall serve as additional evidence. Others with similar ideas but different characteristics shall be used to build on the already developing train of thought.

Literature Review

This paper derives its authority from several sources that have been cited as authority in the matter of fetal exposure to alcohol, and/ or substance abuse.

These are reports on the findings of various researches including the methodology applied, the theoretical frameworks, the strengths and weaknesses of each procedure, and recommendations for future researchers as well as for donors in terms of progressing corrective measures. Having already named them and given the topics here, in the next section of this paper where the paper discusses the findings, the write will just name the first two researchers and the title of their work then go ahead to report their findings.

It is also important to note that within the above studies, are inclusions of other studies that the researchers compare or contrast their findings and methodologies. I shall include such in-text researchers where a relevant point is projected, but just to the extent which is mentioned under the current research.



Alcohol is a teratogen. In other words, it is a substance that is harmful to the development of the body, both physically and mentally (Larkby, & Day, 1997, p. 192). When a pregnant woman consumes alcohol, it is absorbed into her mainstream and absorbed alongside food and oxygen by the fetus’s system.

Consequently, the fetus becomes inebriated, and unfortunately, its “clean-up” mechanism that is responsible of ridding the body of toxic substance is not nearly as efficient as that of its mother. The alcohol is thus retained for long periods within the fetus resulting in the adverse effects of alcohol on fetal growth and development. A child may be born with withdrawal symptoms such as restlessness, muscle tremors, irritability, and eating and sleeping disorders (Nulman, Rovet, & Stewart, 1997, p. 259).

During the first trimester, particularly the first until the fourth week, the heart, the Central Nervous System (week 3 marks the beginning of brain development) eyes, legs, arms, ears, lungs, kidneys and genitals are the organs that are in development. Consequently, exposing the fetus to alcohol then can result into morphological deficits such as alterations in facial features as well as small eye openings (short palpebral fissures).

It can further result into the development of epicanthic folds on eyelids, short upturned nose, flattened philtrum, (middle ridge linking nose and lip) thin upper lip, flattened midface, underdevelopment of upper and / or lower jaw, and abnormal skull structure (Clarren, Olson, Clarren & Astley, 2002, p. 315).

They also include mental development inhibition, which results in mental retardation and behavioral problems. In particular, such an individual’s brain parts are underdeveloped. These include the hippocampus, frontal lobes, corpus collosum, and basal ganglia.

Consequently, they suffer delayed motor and speech development, hearing impairments, abnormalities in sleep patterns, and difficulty in adapting and responding to stimuli. One of the most effective tools used in diagnosing these deficits is the Brazelton Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale (Loebstein, & Koren, 1997, p. 195).

Alcohol abuse during the third trimester causes growth retardation. Consequently, infants are born with a low birth weight and height and they remain thin and short through the rest of their lives. Some researchers carried forward their studies to investigate the continuance of these effects in the adulthood of the patient.

Morphological features such as facial distortions are ameliorated during adolescence by puberty spurts as well as normal muscle development (Clarren, Olson, Clarren, & Astley, 2002, p. 320). However, mental retardation remains.

One study indicated that such individuals IQ ranges from a low 29 (completely retarded) to 105 (high average). Consequently, most of them have learning disabilities due to inherent mental incapacitation. Neuropsychological measures have yielded results that indicate that these individuals, (5-15) have difficulties in; processing and storing information, visual and spatial skills, problem solving-they cannot make complex decisions, and poor sequential processing.

Behavioral problems that have been observed include hyperactivity, irritation during infancy, inattention, lack of concentration, lack of independent living skills, stubbornness, social withdrawal, and social problems such as depression and anxiety. Conduct problems include lying, cheating, stealing, poor communication, antisocial inclinations, and problems with substance and drug abuse.

Research has proved that the relationship between amount and duration of exposure can either be linear i.e. it is directly proportional and the more an expectant woman drinks, the more the damage caused on the infant. It can also be a threshold relationship (Nulman, Rovet, & Stewart, 1997, p. 263). This came up with the few exceptional cases where alcohol did not adversely affect the fetus; therefore, there was a quest to establish the threshold amount of alcohol that can be consumed without affecting the unborn baby.

Unfortunately, for drinkers, no such amount has been established this far because different people react differently to different amounts of alcohol consumed. Most researchers noted age of the mother, socioeconomic status after birth, maternal rejection of the infant and maternal co morbidity with medical or psychiatric disorders as the confounding variables of their research but that once controlled, however, these factors have negligent effects on the findings.


Research has proved the directly proportional relationship (linear) between maternal smoking during pregnancy and criminal inclination and substance abuse by the adult who suffered this exposure as a fetus (Brennan, Grekin, & Mortensen, 2002, p. 50).

The most common crimes such individuals engage in include; murder, attempted murder, robbery, rape, assault (including domestic assault), illegal possession of a weapon, theft, breaking and entering, fraud, forgery, blackmail, embezzlement, vandalism, prostitution, pimping, and narcotics offenses.

It is important to note that there was no special relationship between the inclination to commit narcotic offences and fetal exposure to tobacco. This research also proved that, male offspring of such history is given to more aggression and violence than their female counterparts are. An interesting relationship was addressed between female offspring inclination to become dependent on substance abuse and exposure to tobacco in the womb (Brennan, Grekin, & Mortensen, 2002, p. 52).

It was proved that this relationship is linear, and that the aggression portrayed by these females is largely in the process of acquiring illicit substances. Therefore, future researchers seeking to address the issue of violence in female offspring exposed to tobacco in the uterus are advised to focus on disturbance reports and statements instead of charge records.


In addition to some defects associated with alcohol use such as reduced circumference of skull and growth defects, addicted cocaine users who continue to use it during pregnancy have various ill effects.

These range from spontaneous abortions, abruption of placenta (these two are more common when cocaine is taken intravenously, they cause fetal hypoxemia), premature labor, precipitous deliveries, stillbirths, and me conium staining (Loebstein, & Koren, 1997, p. 195). A cocaine-specific effect is prenatal cerebral infraction, which results from the constriction of the veins circulating blood in the cerebrum. Such a child will have difficulty with comprehension and expression.


Most researchers recommended that the therapists to be used in counseling addicted expectant women be friendlier and give the mothers hope in recovery. This can be made possible if we use therapists who are themselves recovering from dependence (Nulman, Rovet, & Stewart, 1997, p. 262).

Many proposed the inclusion of the more complex psychomotor development assessment to phase out physical assessment. Finally, some proposed the incorporation of prevention and intervention strategy development by future researchers (Larkby, & Day, 1997, p. 197).

Critical Analysis of a Key Concept

I choose to analyze alcohol consumption by expectant women. Alcohol has been a social beverage since time immemorial and most people accept it, as it is not regarding the repercussions they subject themselves into when they consume it. However, some people consume it to ‘forget’ their problems or as a way of coping with their stress issues.

This study has proved that alcohol consumption is detrimental to fetal health. Every drink an expectant woman consumes is taken by her unborn baby as well. The effects of this are inhuman, as the baby will be damaged for life. They can be born already addicted to alcohol and suffering withdrawal symptoms, or with physical, mental and neurological deformations, which will affect them for life.

Extreme cases of deformation are difficult on the mother as well. It is interesting to note that, there is no threshold amount of alcohol that a person can consume without risking his/her baby’s health. Most women in my community consume wine almost every night after dinner ‘for digestive purposes’.

There is also the misled belief that wine is not too strong a drink. A simple sip at the wrong time of fetal development can wreak havoc on the baby’s IQ. It is also important to note that such a child will always blame the mother for his condition, meaning that there will be a strained relationship at best with the child, in addition to the burden of raising a deformed child.

Finally, statistics show that drinking is more common among Caucasian females that African Americans or Hispanics, and that it increase with the level of education. It is therefore important that we pay attention to these statistics and findings to protect our children from deformities at birth and in life.


This paper has looked into the effects of alcohol and substance during pregnancy on the newborn and on the mother-child relationship. It has surveyed the findings of authoritative researchers and compiled them to draw its conclusions on this phenomenon.

It has also indicated the aims of the study as intending to create awareness among the youth, and policy makers on the adverse effects of drug use during pregnancy. It included recommendations for future researchers as well as for policy makers seeking to alleviate this growing problem, and finally, it critically analyses alcoholism in among women. I would advice all affected parties to pay attention to its findings to stay off trouble with drugs.


Brennan, A., Grekin R., Mortensen, E. (2002). Relationship of Maternal Smoking During

Pregnancy With Criminal Arrest and Hospitalization for Substance Abuse in Male and Female Adult Offspring. American Journal of Psychiatry , 3 (2), pp. 48-54.

Clarren, K., Olson, C., Clarren, S., & Astley S. (2002). A Child with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. In G. M. (ed.), Interdisciplinary Clinical Assessment of Young Children with Developmental Disabilities. Baltimore, Maryland: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Larkby, C. & Day, N. (1997). The Effects of Prenatal Alcohol Exposure. Alcohol Health & Research World , 4 (1), pp.192-197.

Loebstein, R., & Koren, G. (1997). Pregnancy Outcome and Neurodevelopment of Children Exposed In Utero to Psychoactive Drugs: The Motherisk Experience. Journal ofPsychiatry & Neuroscience ,2(1), pp. 192-196.

Nulman, I., Rovet, J., & Stewart, D. (1997). Neurodevelopment Of Children Exposed In Utero To Antidepressant Drugs. The New England Journal of Medicine , 1 (1), pp. 258-262.

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