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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), birth defects occur in one of every 33 babies and are the leading cause of infant death. These problems, present at birth, are caused by genetics, the environment, and other known and unknown causes. Environmental causes of birth defects include chemical and other exposures that occur during pregnancy, including exposure to alcohol and drugs.

Research indicated that there is no safe level of alcohol use during pregnancy; even an exceedingly small amount can have negative effects on the developing foetus. For this reason, healthcare providers recommend that women avoid drinking alcohol and eating foods or taking medications that may contain alcohol, such as certain cough syrups, if there is a chance they might be pregnant. It is also recommended that women planning to become pregnant need to avoid alcohol for at least three months before the pregnancy.

Drug exposure during pregnancy is not limited to illegal drugs, such as cocaine, but includes prescription and over-the-counter drugs and supplements that might disrupt the development of the foetus. Factors that affect pregnancy and foetal development are central to the National Institutes of Health Directory (NIHD’s) research. Within this context, some NIHD research is currently examining:

  • Effects of alcohol consumption on foetal development and infant health
  • Effects of exposure to different classes of drugs on foetal development and on later development
  • Mechanisms by which alcohol causes birth defects
  • Effects of alcohol on maternal health, including placental effects
  • Patterns of alcohol consumption and drug use during pregnancy

Recent findings from a study conducted by researchers in the NIHD Division of Intramural Population Health Research (DIPHR) aimed to address this issue and prospectively tracked the children of women who drank alcohol heavily during their pregnancies. Heavy alcohol consumption was defined as two or more ounces (or 48 grams or more) of alcohol per day. This level of alcohol intake per day has been linked to adverse effects on the developing foetus, including effects on the central nervous system.

The California Tobacco-Related Diseases Research Program, researchers from the NIHD’s DIPHR examined the effects of prenatal exposure to tobacco smoke and alcohol. Although smoking cigarettes did not contribute to any of the birth defects that were evaluated in the study, smoking during pregnancy is known to increase the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm birth, low birth weight, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, lung problems, learning problems, and other short- and long-term health problems.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, exposure to cocaine in the womb can lead to subtle, yet significant, deficits later in children. These deficits usually show up in areas such as cognitive performance, information-processing, and attention to tasks. These are areas that are vital for success not just in school, but in life.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, illicit drug use has increased. They report that in 2002, 8.3% of the population used these drugs, in comparison to 9.4% in 2013. Unfortunately, the author was not able to identify statistics on this particular topic later than 2013. “According to my experience and knowledge the numbers of people abusing alcohol and other substances are increasing, but I am not able to verify this assumption.”