How to avoid harmful substances during pregnancy

January 27, 2021

For many people, the start of a new year is a great time to think about new beginnings. If one of those new beginnings is planning a pregnancy, there are things you can do to help give your baby a healthy start. This includes avoiding harmful substances that can increase your baby’s risk of birth defects.

Birth defects are structural changes present at birth that can affect almost any part of the body. They may affect how the body looks, works or both. Birth defects can cause problems in overall health, how the body develops or how the body works.

Birth defects most often happen during the first three months of pregnancy, when your baby’s organs are forming. Sometimes they can happen before you even know you’re pregnant. Birth defects can also happen later in pregnancy, when your baby’s organs are still growing and developing.

Substances such as alcohol, drugs and tobacco can cause problems for you and your baby during pregnancy, including increasing your baby’s risk of birth defects. Here’s why it’s important to avoid these substances during pregnancy.

Alcohol can cause problems for a developing baby throughout pregnancy. Alcohol in your bloodstream quickly passes to your baby through the placenta and the umbilical cord. The placenta grows in your uterus (womb) and supplies the baby with food and oxygen through the umbilical cord.

No amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy. All types of alcohol are harmful during pregnancy, including wine and beer. Alcohol can increase your baby’s chances of problems such as preterm birth, brain damage and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). It can also increase the risk of birth defects such as heart defects, hearing problems and vision problems.

What you can do. It’s important to stop drinking alcohol when you start trying to get pregnant and throughout pregnancy. Sometimes this can be hard if you’re used to having a drink with dinner or at the end of a busy day. But even the alcohol in one drink can pass through the placenta to your growing baby. Here are some tips for avoiding alcohol during pregnancy:

  • Think about when you usually drink alcohol. Plan to drink other things, such as flavored sparkling water or water with slices of fruit. Or, find recipes online for delicious “mocktails” – cocktails that don’t contain alcohol. Use your favorite glass and a fun straw to make it seem more festive.
  • Treat yourself to something healthier during the times you usually have a drink. This could be a hobby you enjoy, a walk, a relaxing bath or a good book.
  • Stay away from situations or places where you usually drink.
  • Get rid of the alcohol in your home.
  • Tell your partner and your friends and family that you’re not drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Ask them to help and support you.
  • If you need help to stop drinking, you can:
    • Talk to your health care provider. Your provider can help you find resources to help you stop.
    • Join an Alcoholics Anonymous support group.
  • Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Treatment Services Locator to find services near you, or call 1-800 662-4357.

Drugs, including marijuana. Using certain drugs during pregnancy can cause health problems for you and your baby. These problems can include preterm birth, low birthweight and birth defects. For example, using drugs such as opioids during pregnancy can cause preterm birth and neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) in babies. NAS is a group of conditions caused when a baby withdraws from certain drugs he’s exposed to in the womb before birth.

Using marijuana during pregnancy also may cause problems for your baby before and after birth. Even though marijuana may be legal in some states, no amount of marijuana has been proven safe to use during pregnancy. Marijuana contains chemicals that can pass through the placenta to your baby.

What you can do. Don’t start or stop taking any medicine during pregnancy without talking to your provider first. This includes over the counter (OTC) medicines, supplements and herbal products. If you are using marijuana for medical reasons, talk with your doctor about other options. If you need help to stop using drugs, you can:

Tobacco. Smoking during pregnancy can cause problems for your baby, including birth defects such as cleft lip and cleft palate. Smoke from the tobacco in cigarettes and cigars contains more than 7,000 chemicals. At least 250 of these are harmful to smokers and nonsmokers. When you smoke during pregnancy, dangerous chemicals can pass through the placenta and reach your baby’s bloodstream. Even being around secondhand smoke during pregnancy can increase your baby’s risk of birth defects.

Using electronic cigarettes (vaping) during pregnancy also isn’t safe. Most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which can damage a baby’s developing brain and many other organs. E-cigarettes also contain other chemicals and flavorings that can harm your baby.

What you can do. It’s best to quit smoking and vaping before you get pregnant. But if you’re pregnant and smoking or vaping, quitting as soon as possible can still help protect you and your baby from health problems. Here are some tips to help you quit:

  • Pick a “quit day.” This will give you time to prepare. On that day, throw away all your cigarettes or cigars, lighters and ashtrays.
  • Write down your reasons for quitting. Look at the list when you are tempted to smoke.
  • Tell your partner and your friends and family that you’re quitting. Ask them to help and support you.
  • Make a list of the things that make you feel like smoking. Write down at least one way you can deal with each thing.
  • Do healthier activities that distract you from wanting to smoke, such as going for a walk or keeping your hands busy with a hobby. You can also snack on some raw veggies or chew sugarless gum to ease the need to have something in your mouth.
  • Ask your employer what services are covered by health insurance.
  • Look for programs in your community or where you work that can help you stop smoking. These are called smoking cessation programs.
  • Ask your health care provider about quitting aids such as patches, gum, nasal spray and medicines. Don’t start using these without talking to your provider, especially if you’re pregnant.
  • Use tools such as’s free text message program for pregnant women who are trying to quit. Or, call 1-800-QUIT-NOW for advice from a quit smoking counselor.

Learn more about birth defects.