Rehab 4 Addiction

Even when not pregnant, Cocaine carries a huge range of physical and psychological dangers to the user.

Using cocaine has been associated with migraines, seizures and exacerbated cardiovascular alterations, as well as eating disorders, liver failure, damage to the nose and many other serious ailments.

All of these become even more dangerous during pregnancy.

An expectant mother who is using cocaine may experience severe issues with blood pressure, and even a spontaneous miscarriage.

If the baby itself survives the pregnancy, it will likely be incredibly premature with symptoms of underdevelopment.

For example, it is quite common to see babies with smaller heads and stunted growth, which gives them low birth weights and puts them at further risk.

In this article, we will explore why it is so dangerous to use cocaine whilst pregnant or breastfeeding.

Facts and figures

Childbearing Age

The majority of women are of childbearing age when addicted to cocaine, and around 5% of pregnant women use substances that lead to addiction.

There are 750,000 pregnant women who use cocaine annually.

Although large, this may in fact be a reduced figure due to the fear of family or law enforcement removing children from the mother.

This exposes a huge number of mothers and their children to the life-changing impact of cocaine at one of the most vulnerable times in their lives.

Cocaine and the unborn


Cocaine has such a powerful negative effect on babies because of its ability to cross the placenta with ease.

When cocaine is taken by the mother, it travels through the placenta, the route for nutrients, and enters the unborn baby.

Once the drug is in the unborn baby and developing foetus, the cocaine interrupts the central nervous system during key stages of growth.

Cocaine usually makes the blood vessels contract, which increases both blood pressure and heart rate. This restriction of blood and oxygen can further impact the baby.

Impaired oxygen delivery and brain-bleeds are not uncommon.

Furthermore, this defect in oxygen delivery can prevent and slow the development of the baby’s organs.

The extent of damages is dependent on the doses, timing, duration and occasions of the mother’s usage. This will all influence how much cocaine affects the baby.

The following are common signs of cocaine use during pregnancy:

Premature birth and low birth weight

Using cocaine during pregnancy will significantly increase the risk of a baby being born ‘too early’ also coined a premature birth.

In general, premature birth is defined as given before 37 weeks.

Babies that are born too early are usually underdeveloped, meaning they will experience a list of health complications later on in life.

These issues may be cognitive or cardiovascular, but the most common issues seem to involve sight and hearing.

If a baby’s weight at birth is under 6lbs (generally 5.8oz), there is a serious risk of health complications.

This can also lead to difficulty in gaining weight and eating, with most requiring medical intervention.


Miscarriage following drug use is common and very dangerous. A miscarriage is generally deemed to be the death of the baby before 20 weeks of pregnancy.

The risk of miscarriage whilst using cocaine is high, but this depends on the amount of cocaine the mother uses and how regularly.

However, it is still possible for a woman to have a healthy baby after she gives up drug use.

Placental abruption

Placental abruption is a serious risk to pregnant women who use cocaine, which could lead both the baby and mother to die.

The placenta is situated in the upper part of the uterus and remains there until after the birth of the baby.

Placental abruption occurs when this placenta either partially or completely detaches from the wall of the uterus before the birth of the baby.

This will block the supply of both oxygen and nutrients to the baby and cause heavy internal bleeding in the mother.

Severe abruption may cause growth problems in the foetus, and a premature or stillbirth.

More problems include:

  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Neurological and developmental issues
  • Cleft palate
  • Limb defects
  • Downs syndrome
  • Organ failure

From other to baby: the later deficits

Later deficits

Over-exposure to substances such as cocaine during pregnancy can seriously affect foetal development.

This had been proven to lead to later deficits in childhood that mirror the long-term symptoms of classic addiction:

  • behaviour and self-regulation issues
  • slow cognitive development and performance
  • slow signs of information processing
  • inability to remain focused (small attention span)

Applying the disease model of addiction

Addiction disease

The disease model of addiction highlights a user’s addiction as a disease, rather than a mere choice or deficit in mental reasoning.

Addiction itself has numerous origins, including:

  • Biological
  • Neurological
  • Environmental
  • Genetic

All 4 of these factors provides an explanation for the behaviour of children following a pregnancy where their mother used cocaine.

Biological and neurological

Neurological Effects

The disease model of addiction makes the argument that addiction acts upon the brain like any physical disease.

Cocaine is known to have powerful psychological consequences, including a significant impact on decision making.

The earlier the drugs are introduced to the neurological workings of the brain, the greater the damage.

When we apply this understanding to cocaine during pregnancy, we can see that if you introduce drugs to a foetus that hasn’t even been born yet, the damage may be off the charts.

Environmental origin


A stressful environment makes you stressed. Addiction works by the same principle.

Nature and nurture both influence addiction.

If you are surrounded by it, such as your mother after you’ve been born, you are more likely to engage in drug-related behaviour.

Unfortunately, it is down to chance whether you are born into a using environment.

Genetic influence

Genetic Influence

Like many other diseases, addiction can be passed through genetics, heavily contributing to the cycle of addiction along with the environmental origin of addiction.

The facts remain that cocaine is easily passed to an unborn child through the placenta, which was meant solely to provide oxygen and nutrients.

The lack of oxygen and early exposure to drugs hinders the child’s development, both mentally and physically.

This is assuming that the child has been lucky enough to even survive, as cocaine use carries a huge risk of miscarriage or stillbirth.

If the child does grow up with a mother or father who still uses cocaine, along with their medical difficulties, they are likely to use it in accordance with the disease model of addiction.

With every factor considered, the odds are stacked against children who are either exposed early, born into a using environment, or have parents who have used or continue to use cocaine.

If you or a loved one are suffering from cocaine addiction, reach out to Rehab 4 Addiction today for the best help and advice on overcoming this disease. Treatment typically takes at a residential cocaine rehab clinic.



Boris is our editor-in-chief at Rehab 4 Addiction. Boris is an addiction expert with more than 20 years in the field.  His expertise covers a broad of topics relating to addiction, rehab and recovery. Boris is an addiction therapist and assists in the alcohol detox and rehab process. Boris has been featured on a variety of websites, including the BBC, Verywell Mind and Healthline.