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Crack Babies | What We Know About Prenatal Crack Exposure

Published on February 10, 2021
Crack & Prenatal Exposure | What We Know About Crack Babies

Cocaine is a highly addictive illicit drug that comes in powder form. Some people cook the powder into smokeable rocks known as crack cocaine

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), about 750,000 pregnant women use cocaine, including crack cocaine, every year. Like many forms of drug use, crack cocaine use can cause serious issues during pregnancy

Crack & Prenatal Exposure

In the 1980s and ‘90s, there was a crack epidemic in Los Angeles, New York City, and other major cities in the United States. 

During this time, many people believed that all babies who were exposed to crack cocaine in utero would experience significant problems later in life. They often called these children “crack babies.”

Researchers have since found that prenatal cocaine exposure doesn’t always have severe consequences. While it poses a number of risks, its effects vary depending on individual and environmental factors such as:

  • the amount and frequency of the mother’s cocaine use
  • the mother’s general health
  • the level of prenatal care the mother receives
  • whether the mother uses alcohol or other drugs
  • whether the baby experiences child abuse, neglect, or other harmful events while growing up

Risks Of Prenatal Cocaine Exposure

Prenatal exposure to crack cocaine (or powder cocaine) may cause the following problems:

Poor Maternal Health

A pregnant woman who uses cocaine may experience dangerous side effects. The most common side effects of cocaine include: 

  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • paranoia
  • hallucinations (seeing, hearing, or feeling things that aren’t there) 
  • migraines
  • seizures
  • loss of appetite, weight loss, and malnourishment
  • chest pain
  • increased heart rate
  • irregular heartbeat 
  • high blood pressure that can lead to heart attack or stroke
  • brain damage

These issues can harm not only the mother but also the developing fetus.

In addition, pregnant women who become addicted to crack cocaine may find it difficult to focus on anything besides getting and using the drug. 

They might forget to attend prenatal appointments or struggle to follow medical advice, which increases the risk of problems like miscarriage and difficult delivery. 

Placental Abruption

The placenta provides oxygen and nutrients for the baby. In healthy pregnancies, it stays connected to the uterus until birth. However, cocaine use can cause the placenta to detach from the uterus prematurely.

This condition, which is called placental abruption, usually causes bleeding. When left untreated, it may be fatal for both the mother and baby. 

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

When a pregnant woman uses cocaine, the drug can easily cross the placenta and cause physical dependence in the developing fetus. 

After birth, the baby may experience a withdrawal syndrome called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). Symptoms usually start within 3 days of birth and may include:

  • irritability
  • shaking
  • trouble feeding
  • trouble sleeping
  • stuffy nose and/or sneezing
  • excessive or high-pitched crying
  • fever
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • slow weight gain
  • blotchy skin coloring
  • fast breathing
  • seizures

If your baby experiences these symptoms, seek medical help right away. With proper pediatric care, most babies recover from NAS within a few weeks or months.

Premature Delivery

Cocaine use can increase the risk of premature delivery, which occurs when the mother gives birth before week 37 of pregnancy. 

Babies who are born premature may face a higher risk of breathing problems, cerebral palsy, poor vision, and other issues. 

Low Birth Weight

Prenatal cocaine exposure also raises the risk of low birth weight (a weight under 5 pounds, 8 ounces). This issue can sometimes make it difficult for a baby to fight off infections, eat properly, and gain weight. 

Similarly, babies exposed to cocaine in utero often have smaller head circumferences (also called microcephaly) and shorter lengths.

Developmental Problems

Sometimes, prenatal cocaine exposure has long-term effects on a child’s health. Specifically, the child may face a higher risk of developmental problems like:

  • difficulty paying attention
  • trouble with self-regulation (the ability to manage emotions and behaviors appropriately)
  • mild problems with memory and language 

How To Protect Your Baby

Pregnant women who use cocaine can prevent or reduce the risk of the above problems by seeking drug abuse and addiction treatment. 

Many addiction centers offer programs designed specifically for pregnant women. These programs provide services such as:

  • prenatal health care
  • medical detox 
  • mental health counseling
  • behavioral therapy
  • psychiatry
  • peer support groups
  • wellness activities like exercise, meditation, yoga, and journaling

To learn more about cocaine addiction treatment options for pregnant women, please reach out to an ARK Behavioral Health specialist today. 

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

National Center for Biotechnology Information - Placental Abruption
National Institute on Drug Abuse - What are the effects of maternal cocaine use?
National Institute on Drug Abuse - What are the long-term effects of cocaine use?
U.S. National Library of Medicine - Fetal Cocaine Exposure: Neurologic Effects and Sensory-Motor Delays
U.S. National Library of Medicine - Neonatal abstinence syndrome

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