Nonfood Items and Drugs During Pregnancy

Americans are a drug-oriented society. As adults, we routinely consume—and encourage our children to consume—many medicines without considering that even most over-the-counter substances are drugs.

Virtually all drugs and medications taken during pregnancy cross the placenta and reach the baby. The baby often gets an equal amount of the drug dosage, although the drug is taken with the woman’s age and weight in mind. Fetal growth and development are so rapid that a drug can have a profound effect on the baby even though it is considered mild. Many drugs are harmful only at particular points in pregnancy or only if used in conjunction with other drugs or agents.

The exact connections between some drugs and birth defects are difficult to trace, since humans are not used as experimental subjects. Therefore, you should be careful about taking or using any drug during pregnancy. No drug is known to be safe, even though it may not be considered harmful. Always weigh the potential risks against the possible benefits before taking and medication.

Often, a drug-free treatment can provide relief. For example, a headache may be caused by tension or by going for a long period without eating. Lie down with some relaxing music or apply an ice bag. Try eating, if you have not done so for a while. Some women have found headache relief by applying firm fingertip pressure to the following acupressure points—the temples, the area midway between the eyebrows, and the back of the neck, along the hairline. You may find circular massage to be more effective than direct pressure. The pressure points will be tender to the touch. This tenderness will help you locate the correct points. (For a further discussion of this method of pain relief, see “Acupressure“)

Backaches are often caused by poor posture. Using good body mechanics and the pelvic rock may be more beneficial than taking a pill. (For a discussion of proper body mechanics as well as descriptions of several conditioning exercises including the pelvic rock, see Chapter [4]). Constipation can be avoided by consuming a high-fiber diet, drinking plenty of fluids, and getting enough exercises. Colds can be relieved by resting, drinking extra fluids, and using a vaporizer for a stuffy nose. Cold and flu medication do not cure; they just relieve symptoms. Taking them will not make you well faster and may harm your baby.

If you do develop a medical problem, such as urinary tract infection, or have a pre-existing condition, such as diabetes or heart disease, you may need to take medication. If a problem is not treated, it could be more dangerous to the fetus than the medication. Your doctor will recommend the medication or treatment that he feels is the safest during pregnancy.

A number of nonfood items have been shown to have harmful effects on the developing fetus. These items include cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana and recreational drugs, caffeine, some food additives, and certain medications.


Smoking women’s babies have a higher incidence of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)

Smoking during pregnancy is considered to be one of the leading preventable causes of low birth weight. Pregnant smokers give birth to smaller babies, have greater chances of premature birth and placental malformations, and have more premature rupture of the membranes and stillbirths. Their babies also have a higher incidence of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and have been shown to be intellectually 3 to 5 months behind the children of nonsmokers.

In addition, some effects have been found to be lasting. Follow-up studies have shown than the 7-year-old children of women who smoked during pregnancy were shorter in stature, tended to have retarded reading abilities, rated lower in social adjustment, and had more behavioral problems than the children of women who did not smoke during pregnancy. While pregnant, your best bets are to stop smoking or cut down as much as possible, and to avoid being around others who are heavy smokers. A direct relationship exists between the number of cigarettes a woman smokes per day and the degree to which her baby is affected.

Even if their mothers did not smoke during pregnancy, infants living in households where other smoke are at increased risk. They are more than twice as likely to die of SIDS than those living in smoke-free environments. According to an article in Pediatrics, the infants of women who smoke more than twenty cigarettes a day are more likely to have recurrent ear infections. Researches believe that “sidestream cigarette smoke causes a buildup of mucus and there is evidence that smoke can paralyze the cells that move this mucus and there is evidence that smoke can paralyze the cells that move this mucus out of the middle ear. Evidences also indicates that smoke interferes with the ability of white cells to fight infection in the middle ear”. These researchers also suggest that women who smoke are less likely to breastfeed, thus depriving their infants of this important immunity booster.

If you are a smoker, pregnancy is the best time to stop. The immediate and future benefits for you and your unborn baby are immeasurable.

Hints for the Father-to-Be

  • Stop smoking and encourage your mate to stop, too.
  • Encourage your mate to use nondrug therapies for her headaches, backaches, and colds.
  • Encourage your mate to avoid alcohol and recreational drugs.


A study linked consumption of alcohol during the last 6 months of pregnancy with infant leukemia.

Current research has proven that alcohol has a toxic effect on the developing fetus. If you drink during pregnancy, the alcohol quickly crosses the placenta and saturates the fetal blood supply in the same concentration that is present in your blood. According to a report to the U.S. Congress, prenatal alcohol exposure is a leading cause of mental retardation in the Western world.

A study published in the Journal of The National Cancer Institute in 1996 links consumption of alcohol during the last 6 months of pregnancy with infant leukemia, a rare disease. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) recommends further studies to verify this finding.

Babies born to women who are heavy drinkers have a 50-percent chance of having fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). This syndrome includes mental retardation, slowed body growth before and after birth, learning difficulties, lower IQs, and physical abnormalities. Less severe symptoms, known collectively as fetal alcohol effect (FAE), are associated with behavioral and mental problems, poor physical coordination, short attention span, and hyperactivity.

There is no known safe level of alcohol consumption for a pregnant woman. Even two drinks a day may cause a lowered birth weight in babies. Be sure to avoid any type of drinking binge during pregnancy or if you just suspect you are pregnant.

One big part is not worth the risk to your baby. You would be wise to give up drinking alcoholic beverages completely while pregnant.

Marijuana, Cocaine, and Other Recreational Drugs

Marijuana affects the baby as much as it does the woman. In animal studies, temporary brain cell alterations occurred in the fetuses of rates exposed to marijuana smoke. Some reports have indicated that pregnant women who smoke marijuana in excess, as well as women who take lysergic acid (LSD), may cause chromosomal damage in their babies.

The effects of crack cocaine are equally alarming. They include possible miscarriage, low birth weight, malformations, and stillbirth. With any drug addiction, the newborn must suffer the horrors of withdrawal. Follow-up studies on children whose mothers used cocaine during pregnancy concluded that this exposure “has a significant effect on three-year cognitive abilities as measured on the Stanford-Binet scale”. Do not risk ruining your child’s development. Stay away from marijuana, crack, and other drugs while you are pregnant.


Caffeine is a stimulant present in coffee, tea, cola drinks, chocolate, and some over-the-counter medications. Recent studies have shown that heavy caffeine consumption—That is, over 300 milligrams per day—can increase a woman’s chance of delivering a baby with a low birth weight.

A 1993 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that consuming the amount of caffeine in 1 1/2 to 3 cups of coffee per day nearly double the risk of miscarriage. In addition, drinking 3 or more cups of coffee a day during the month before becoming pregnant also increased this risk. Other studies have not always agreed. An article in the same journal 10 months earlier reported that drinking three or fewer 8-ounce cups of coffee per day did not increase the risk of miscarriage or affect fetal development. Drinking 1 or 2 cups a day may not harm your baby. On the other hand, you are pregnant for only 9 months and should do everything possible to ensure a healthy child.

Caffeine is found in many common food and nonfood items. It is also present in products that you may not associate with being high in caffeine. See Table 3.2 for a listing of the more popular ones, along with their caffeine contents.

Many delicious decaffeinated coffees and teas are now available. However, milk, water, and fruit juices should make up the bulk of your fluid intake for maximum nutrition. Coffee has no nutritional value.

Hints for the Father-to-Be

  • Give your mate early morning snacks if she has morning sickness.
  • Remind your mate that morning sickness is usually over after the first trimester.
  • Cook nutritious meals for your mate.
  • Encourage your mate to follow the No-Risk Pregnancy Diet.
  • Help your mate in the kitchen if cooking smells make her nauseated.
  • Provide healthy snacks for your mate.

Food Additives

Food additives such as saccharin, nitrates, artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, and PCB and PBB (industrial chemical wastes often found in freshwater fish) are possibly related to increased susceptibility to cancer and birth defects. Saccharin presents a special risk to a male fetus if consumed by his mother. The FDA reports that studies indicate a positive correlation (60- to 100-percent increased risk) between saccharin ingestion during pregnancy and bladder cancer in male offspring. Aspartame—which is marketed as Nutrasweet, an artificial sweetener used in soft drinks and packaged foods, and Equal, a granulated sugar substitute—has not yet been fully tested. The FDA has recommended moderation in its use during pregnancy. For optimum safety, you should eliminate all artificially sweetened substances from your diet while pregnant.


Over-the-counter and prescription medications all pass through the placenta to the baby. Therefore, you should check with your caregiver before taking any medication during pregnancy. Drugs used to treat such symptoms as pain, nervousness, sleeplessness, runny nose, heartburn, nausea, cough, or constipation can be avoided by using common sense, good nutrition, and relaxation techniques. Do not take aspirin, sedatives, antihistamines, barbiturates, diuretics, hormones, diet pills, antacids, cough medicines, or tranquilizers. Some of these are thought to be associated with jaundice, bleeding, or cleft palate in babies. Pseudoephedrine, a common decongestant, has been linked to a rare abdominal defect in which the abdominal wall has a hole that allows the intestines to protrude outside the body.

The drug Accutane, used to treat severe acne, is known to cause major birth defects when taken during the first 3 months of pregnancy. Avoid taking this drug if there is any chance that you are pregnant.


Pregnant women are often known to have unusual cravings for everyday foods. Pica is the craving for and ingestion of bizarre items, such as laundry starch, detergent, clay, dirt, flour, baking powder, baking soda, or frost scraped from the refrigerator. Some of these cravings may indicate a severe iron deficiency, and some may be harmful. Clay from specific geographic areas, such as Georgia and Mississippi, has been found to impair the absorption of iron, although this is not the case for the clay from Texas. Argo Gloss Starch also does not impair iron absorption.

The hazard of pica is that the craved items are consumed in place of nutritious food. Pica may also cause profuse salivation, impactions in the bowel, or parasitic infection in the intestine. You should inform your caregiver if you experience pica.