Understanding the Effects of Medications and Smoking on Your Baby

Alcohol and recreational/illicit drugs can cross the placenta and get into your baby’s circulatory system. Some medications can also cross the placenta. Some are completely harmless, whereas others can cause problems. The following sections outline which substances you can safely use and which you should avoid — information that’s crucial to your baby’s health.

Taking medications

During your pregnancy, you’ll probably experience at least a headache or two and an occasional case of heartburn. The question of whether you can safely take pain relievers, antacids, and other over-the-counter medicines is bound to come up. Many women are afraid to take any medicine at all, for fear of somehow harming their babies. But most nonprescription drugs and even many prescription drugs are safe during pregnancy. During your first prenatal visit, go over with your gynaecologist what medications are okay to take during pregnancy — both over-the-counter medications and medications prescribed to you by another physician. If another physician is treating you for a medical condition, let her know that you’re pregnant, in case any adjustments need to be made. Don’t stop taking a prescription medication or change the dosage on your own without talking to your doctor first.

Many medications are labelled “Don’t take during pregnancy” because they haven’t been adequately studied in pregnant women. However, this warning label doesn’t necessarily mean that adverse effects have been reported or that you can’t use these medications. Whenever you have a question about a particular medication, ask your gynaecologist for advice. Don’t be surprised if opinions vary among gynaecologists, especially between non-obstetric medical people and obstetricians. Many non-obstetricians are hesitant to prescribe many medications because they’re uncertain, whereas your obstetric/gynaecologist may be more secure.

Smoking

When you smoke, you run the risk of developing lung cancer, emphysema, and heart disease, among other illnesses. During pregnancy, however, smoking poses risks to your baby as well.

The carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke decreases the amount of oxygen that your growing baby receives, and nicotine cuts back on blood flow to the fetus. Consequently, women who smoke stand an increased chance of delivering babies with low birth weight, which may mean more medical problems for the baby. In fact, babies born to smokers are expected to weigh a half-pound less, on average, than those born to nonsmokers. The exact difference in birth weight depends upon how much the mother smokes. Secondhand smoke is also a risk.

Quitting smoking can be extremely difficult. But keep in mind that even cutting back on the number of cigarettes you smoke is beneficial to your baby (and yourself). If you quit smoking during the first three months you’re pregnant, give yourself a pat on the back and be reassured that your baby is likely to be born at a normal weight and have fewer health issues.

Some women use nicotine patches, gum, lozenges, or inhalers to help them kick the habit. The nicotine from these products is still absorbed into the bloodstream and can still reach the fetus, but at least the carbon monoxide and other toxins in cigarette smoke are eliminated. The total amount of nicotine absorbed from the intermittent use of the gum or inhalers may be less than the amount from the patch, which is used continuously.

Drinking alcohol

Clearly, pregnant women who use alcohol put their babies at risk of foetal alcohol syndrome, which encompasses a wide variety of birth defects (including growth problems, heart defects, mental retardation, or abnormalities of the face or limbs). The controversy arises because medical science hasn’t defined an absolute safe level of alcohol intake during pregnancy. Scientific data shows that constant and heavy binge drinking can lead to serious complexities, although limited information is available about occasional drinking.

If you think you may have a drinking problem, don’t feel uncomfortable talking to your gynaecologist about it. Special questionnaires are available to help your doctor identify whether your drinking is excessive enough to pose a risk to you and the fetus. If you think you may have a problem, discussing this questionnaire with your gynaecologist is crucial to your baby’s health — and to yours.

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