Ask the Doctor: Will my past “bad habits” endanger my baby?


Q. I am starting to think about pregnancy and am now worried that my wild teen years could come back to haunt me. Could the drugs and alcohol I used in the past hurt my chances of getting pregnant now? What about my husband’s habits?

A. Since men are often an afterthought when it comes to pregnancy exposures, let’s start there. When a couple is trying to become pregnant, the future father’s current use of drugs or alcohol may impact his sperm, causing reduced numbers of sperm or decreasing the ability of the sperm to swim and therefore reducing fertility. Since sperm take about 3 months to develop, it would be safest for your husband to avoid recreational substances for at least 3 months before planning a pregnancy.

However, I should point out that, unlike a pregnant woman, the father of the baby does not have a blood connection to the developing baby. Thus, a higher risk for birth defects is not expected from the father’s use of drugs or alcohol. A partner’s use of recreational substances, though, may make it harder for the pregnant women to abstain herself, which could have serious consequences for the pregnancy.

So what about women?  Well, we are largely off the hook for past experiences. In order for drugs and alcohol to harm a developing pregnancy they need to be in your blood system, which usually means that you are actively using the substance during pregnancy.

In order to reduce preventable birth defects, ideally all alcohol and recreational drugs should be avoided during the entire pregnancy, even in the early weeks after conception before a woman knows she is pregnant. High amounts of alcohol during pregnancy can have severe effects on the developing baby’s brain, growth, learning and behavior.  A safe level of alcohol in pregnancy has not been established.  Recreational drugs can increase the chance for pregnancy complications and possibly affect later learning ability of the child.

-Dr. Christina Chambers

Dr. Christina Chambers

Christina Chambers, PhD, MPH, is a professor of pediatrics at UC San Diego and runs the CTIS Pregnancy Health Information Line, part of the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS) network across North America. She also conducts pregnancy studies that need volunteers. To participate, visit OTISpregnancy.org.

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