Do Drugs Affect a Baby's Cognitive Development?

Using illicit drugs is dangerous to your own health, but using them is even more detrimental to the development of your unborn baby.

When you expose your baby to dangerous substances, such as cocaine, crack, heroin and ecstasy, this exposure can have a serious effect on his overall growth, but particularly the development of his brain and on his cognitive function. If you are pregnant, you should not use illicit drugs -- ever, according to the American Pregnancy Association.

Prenatal Brain Development

Your baby's brain goes through massive changes, starting from conception, and his brain grows quite rapidly, as well. According to a 2009 article published in "Pediatrics," your baby's brain undergoes normal growth and change in response to chemical neurotransmitters that his nervous system produces. Illicit drugs can block these neurotransmitters, which can have a negative effect on the development of your baby's brain. Further, certain illicit drugs can delay the actual growth of your baby's brain, which can affect a whole host of mental and physical behaviors after birth.

Physical Damage

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Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug that mothers take during pregnancy, according to the March of Dimes. Regular use of marijuana can lead to mild cognitive problems that affect a child's ability to pay attention, as well as contribute to learning disabilities. Cocaine can lead to learning problems and cognitive delays, but more dangerously, cocaine use leads to premature birth in 25 percent of cases, according to the American Pregnancy Association. Cocaine use is also associated with a higher risk of miscarriage and fetal death. Taking methamphetamine during pregnancy has similar effects. Heroin can cause bleeding of the developing brain, which can affect both brain growth and the function of the chemical neurotransmitters necessary for proper cognitive development. Using heroin causes premature birth in about 50 percent of cases, as well, the March of Dimes reports. Using PCP or LSD during pregnancy can lead to certain brain defects. Inhalant use during pregnancy can cause delayed brain growth and impaired cognitive function, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Long-Term Cognitive Damage

illicit drug use alters your baby's brain chemical function and subsequent development, it can have lasting cognitive changes as he grows up. Many babies born to mothers who used drugs during pregnancy experience impaired brain function, which can result in difficulties in school, academic delays and lowered IQ scores. With cocaine use, specifically, children can display behavioral symptoms similar to that of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to "Pediatrics." The journal goes on to state that with any type of drug use, the amount of brain damage, as well as how the damage affects a child later in life, depends on how often the mother used the drug and when the fetus was exposed. For example, since brain development goes through very rapid changes early in the pregnancy, drug use can have a more serious impact during the first few weeks after conception than later in the pregnancy.

Getting Help

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If you or someone you know uses illicit drugs and is pregnant, it is essential to seek help for the sake of the unborn baby. Women should not quit taking drugs cold turkey, however -- especially in the case of heroin -- because withdrawal symptoms can also cause harm to an unborn baby, according to the March of Dimes. Instead, pregnant mothers should seek help from their obstetrician or from another physician. Many mothers want to stop using drugs to protect their baby's health but they are embarrassed or scared to admit that they are addicted. The job of the obstetrician is to provide appropriate medical care, and not to judge the mother for her choices.

However, certain states encourage doctors to report drug use during pregnancy to child welfare offices. Online support groups and national hotlines can also help, the American Pregnancy Association reports.