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Substance Use during Pregnancy

​​​Women who use drugs, alcohol and tobacco already face many health and social challenges. These challenges are further compounded during pregnancy, when substance use can profoundly affect the earliest stages of human development and have longer term harmful effects that carry into early childhood and beyond.

There is increasing awareness in society of the potential harm to women’s and children’s well-being from maternal substance use during pregnancy.

Between 2003 and 2010, women aged 25-34 experienced the fastest increase in risky drinking of any age group for both males and females, according to Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey. These women account for over 62% of births in Canada. When combined with women aged 18-24, this accounts for approximately 80% of births in Canada, reinforcing why it is so important to educate women about the dangers of drinking alcohol during pregnancy.

Canada must address Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

  • Risky drinking is associated with placing the fetus at greater risk of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

  • FASD is a range of disabilities that can affect people who were prenatally exposed to alcohol.

  • People with FASD can have problems with learning, memory, math, communication and socializing. They might also have characteristic facial features, slowed growth, and vision and hearing problems.

  • FASD could affect as many as 9 in 1,000 babies — about 1% of the Canadian population — according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Yet, FASD is preventable.

It is important to address marijuana use during pregnancy

A growing body of evidence suggests that marijuana use during pregnancy can negatively impact pre- and postnatal development. For example, marijuana use, particularly heavy use, during pregnancy can result in:

  • A five-fold increase of the likelihood of distorted facial features compared to FASD babies.

  • Deficits in memory, verbal and perceptual skills, and verbal and visual reasoning, beginning at age three or four.

  • Impaired performance in reasoning and short-term memory at age six onwards, and deficits in reading, spelling and achievement, appearing around age nine.

What about using other drugs during pregnancy?

  • Because substances can cross the placenta to the fetus, women should speak with their healthcare practitioner concerning the use of any substances during pregnancy.

  • Medical complications can arise from using illicit drugs during pregnancy and can lead to early pregnancy loss, a detached placenta, fetal growth restrictions, blood clots, heightened blood pressure, intrauterine death, preterm labour and hemorrhaging following labour.

  • In utero, a fetus can become dependent on drugs that are transmitted through the blood stream.

Meeting the challenge

Together with our partners, CCSA is working to educate and inform Canadians on the risks of consuming alcohol, marijuana and other substances during pregnancy.

View the Substance Abuse in Canada research series.