The Effects of Alcohol and Other Drugs on Children

Chrome 2001
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Harvard Medical School
Chrome 2001
Chrome 2001

The Effects of Alcohol and Other Drugs on Children

Guiding Your Child Through The Infant Year
Injury and Illness Prevention
The Effects of Alcohol and Other Drugs on Children
The Effects of Alcohol and Other Drugs on Children
Learn how alcohol affects your child.
InteliHealth Medical Content
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School
The Effects of Alcohol and Other Drugs on Children

Babies and children are deeply affected by their parents' alcohol and other drug use. Both during and after a pregnancy, either parent's use of legal drugs (alcohol, some prescription medications and some over-the-counter medications) or illegal drugs (such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin and amphetamines) can have lifelong consequences for children.

Here are some of the dangers of using alcohol and other drugs.

Alcohol during pregnancy

Alcohol passes to the fetus through the mother's blood; in effect, the baby "drinks" as the mother drinks.

Women who drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy increase their risk of having a miscarriage. Heavy alcohol use can result in fetal alcohol syndrome, a group of birth defects that includes mental retardation, poor growth, abnormalities of the brain and spinal cord, and abnormal facial features.

Many physicians advise that pregnant women not drink any alcohol, because no one knows how much alcohol is safe during pregnancy. Even having only one or two drinks per week during pregnancy may result in problems; some research suggests that moderate alcohol use during pregnancy contributes to the development of attention deficit disorder, learning disorders, speech problems and behavior problems. If you feel you need to drink some alcohol during your pregnancy, discuss options with your obstetrician.

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Illegal drugs during pregnancy

Almost everything that a pregnant woman eats, drinks and inhales reaches the fetus. This includes prescription, nonprescription, legal and illegal drugs.

The use of illegal drugs during pregnancy increases a woman's risk of miscarriage. She also is more likely to have a baby with birth defects or to give birth prematurely to an underweight baby, who will be at increased risk of disease and death during infancy and early childhood. A baby exposed to illegal drugs is more likely to have persistent physical and behavioral problems.

A mother's withdrawal from drugs during pregnancy also can result in the death of the fetus from lack of oxygen. Babies born to drug-addicted mothers often go through painful withdrawal themselves after birth.

Women who inject drugs during pregnancy also put themselves and their babies at risk of infection with hepatitis (liver disease) and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), the virus that causes AIDS.

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Alcohol and other drug use after pregnancy

Alcohol and most other drugs pass through a nursing mother's breast milk to her infant. Therefore, it is best to not use any alcohol or drugs, including herbs and other dietary supplements, while breast-feeding without your doctor's permission.

Parents who are intoxicated with alcohol or a different drug are less able to care for their children They put their children's-and their own-lives at risk if they drive while intoxicated. Use of any quantity of alcohol or other mind-altering drug results in some level of impairment. Parents who have been drinking or using any drug should never sleep with an infant because they may not sense the baby in the bed and may roll over onto the baby.

A parent's alcohol or other drug use makes a strong statement to a child. Children model their own behavior on that of their parents. Children of substance-abusing parents are more likely to abuse substances themselves. For example, children of alcoholics are at increased risk of becoming alcoholics. In addition, adolescents who drink alcohol are more likely to use other drugs as well.

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Stop now

Don't use alcohol or any illegal drugs before becoming pregnant and during pregnancy. The less exposure your baby has to harmful substances, the better. Don't take any medications or supplements unless you have discussed them with your doctor.

If you cannot stop drinking or using drugs on your own, get help as soon as possible. Your health and your child's health depend on it. Talk with your doctor about treatment programs and support groups.

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Other resources

Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc.
1600 Corporate Landing Parkway
Virginia Beach, VA 23454-5617
Toll-free: (888) 425-2666

Alcoholics Anonymous World Services
475 Riverside Dr.
New York, NY 10115
Phone: (212) 870-3400

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Last updated August 04, 2014

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