What Are the Effects of Crystal Meth on Pregnancy?

Reviewed by Terri Forehand RN
Terri Forehand RN Terri Forehand RN

Terri Forehand is a critical care nurse with experience in adult and neonatal critical care. She is certified in advanced life support, pediatric advanced life support and neonatal resuscitation.

pregnant woman

Crystal meth use by women of child-bearing age continues to grow, and an estimated 19,000 of those meth users are pregnant. If you are a woman who is using meth, or know a woman who is using meth during pregnancy, there are a number of important facts to consider.

Effects of Meth on Pregnant Women

Thinking about the impacts of pregnancy on a woman's body, many often think in terms of stretch marks and baby weight. Taking a moment to consider the fact that there are two people sharing one bloodstream and one set of organs, it is easy to understand how what the mother puts into her body can impact her unborn child. There is a critical balance within the mother's body that can be ravaged when meth use becomes part of the scenario.

Life Threatening Conditions

Pregnancy alone carries a number of potential complications, but adding meth use to an already delicate situation takes the risk of serious complications to a whole new level. According to a research study conducted by a group of doctors at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, risk for rare life-threatening complications is compounded significantly for pregnant women using meth.

  • High Blood Pressure: The Cedars-Sinai Study indicated almost one quarter of pregnant meth users have uncontrolled high blood pressure. Left uncontrolled, it could lead to kidney damage, heart problems, stroke and pre-eclampsia.
  • Eclampsia: According to a report on methamphetamine-associated maternal deaths, "meth use has also reportedly caused seizures mimicking eclampsia." Pregnant women with uncontrolled high blood pressure are at increased risk for eclampsia. With one quarter of pregnant meth users having uncontrolled high blood pressure as described in the Cedars-Sinai report, eclampsia is also at an elevated risk level for those women. Eclampsia is a serious condition that affects the placenta and can have an impact on the mother's kidneys, her liver and her brain. This condition is the second leading cause of maternal deaths.
  • Abrupted Placenta: The Cedars-Sinai study also found that ten percent of pregnant mothers who use meth suffer from an abrupted placenta. When this happens, the placenta tears away from the uterine wall and causes heavy bleeding in the mother. Severe hemorrhaging can lead to death. While ten percent may seem like a low number, it is a much higher number than the typical occurrence of this complication, which is less than one percent of births in the United States.

Complications During Labor and Delivery

Meth during pregnancy can also cause problems during labor and delivery.

  • Pre-Term Labor and Delivery: According to the Cedars-Sinai Study, 50 percent of women who used meth during their pregnancy delivered their babies pre-term. That percentage is significantly higher than the 17 percent of women (who did not use meth while pregnant) that delivered their babies pre-term.
  • C-Section: Twenty-nine percent of meth users in the same study delivered their babies by C-Section. Only 23 percent of the mothers not using meth required a C-Section. While the procedure is relatively safe, it can lead to other complications and vaginal delivery is preferred for a smooth recovery.

Effects of Meth on the Fetus

While the mother's fragile state during her 40 weeks of pregnancy increases the effects of meth on her own body, it is a temporary condition. The effects of meth on a developing fetus, however, run cell-deep and extend well beyond the womb. Researchers at the University of Toronto conclude that just one dose of meth during pregnancy can carry long-term ramifications for the baby.

  • DNA Damage: The University of Toronto Study revealed that a fetus exposed to meth is susceptible to DNA damage, because the enzymes that protect the fetus from free radicals have not developed yet, and are not fully developed until the last weeks of pregnancy. So as the fetus is developing organ structures and mental functions, meth is raging through the DNA make up with little defenses to combat damage to those cells.
  • Intra-Uterine Growth Retardation: The Infant Development, Environment and Lifestyle (IDEAL) study proved that fetal growth and development within the womb is restricted when there is maternal meth use. Some resulting disorders could include heart defects, mental abnormalities, physical deformities and sometimes death.
  • Premature Birth: As stated in the Cedars-Sinai Study, 50 percent of babies carried by women using meth are delivered prematurely. Babies born before 37 weeks of gestation are born with underdeveloped body systems (lungs, brain, spinal cord, heart and kidneys). According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), "Preterm-related causes of death account for 35% of all infant deaths (2009), more than any other single cause."
  • Mortality/Morbidity: As expected, mortality rates are higher. According to the IDEAL Study, causes of death among babies exposed to meth in the mother's womb include spontaneous abortion (miscarriage), premature birth, restricted fetal development, fetal stroke and the list goes on. The Journal of Analytical Toxicology reports on several cases of infant death directly related to maternal meth use.

  • Fetal Stroke: The report in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology also explains that just as meth can cause uncontrolled high blood pressure in the mother, higher doses of meth absorbed through the placenta can lead to extreme increases in blood pressure for the fetus leading to strokes and brain hemorrhage before birth.

  • Life-Long Challenges: A study conducted by researchers from Brown University reflects the potential for life-long implications for theses infants and their mothers. The list is long and includes an increased risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), low IQ, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, significant behavioral issues, increased aggression, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Type 2 Diabetes, and many more.

Addiction Recovery During Pregnancy

It is very important for pregnant women to stop using meth. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) strongly recommends that pregnant women who cannot stop using meth voluntarily seek care at a residential treatment center if possible, or attend intensive outpatient treatment. It is very difficult to stop meth alone without the help of a physician, so you should be honest about your drug use with your doctor. Further, your doctor really needs to know if you used meth during your pregnancy for the sake of your baby. For more information about overcoming meth addiction, and assistance in finding addiction recovery services while pregnant, contact CrystalMethAddiction.org. Their service is free and confidential.

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What Are the Effects of Crystal Meth on Pregnancy?