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Environmental Dangers: More Than Hype

While the dangers posed by many chemicals in our daily lives are still not fully understood, we do know that some of the most common—cigarette smoke, alcohol and illegal drugs—are not safe during pregnancy.

These are habits that have never been considered healthy but they pose particular threats to your unborn child:


Smoking before, during or after birth affects both your health and your baby’s. Living with someone who smokes also affects the health of mothers and infants. Cigarette smoke contains nicotine, tar and carbon monoxide, all of which cross the placenta and reduce the amount of oxygen and nutrients the baby receives.

Smoking increases the chance of vaginal bleeding during pregnancy, and also miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and low birth weight. Children born to women who smoked during pregnancy are more prone to colds, chest infections, and ear infections.

Quitting smoking during pregnancy has definite benefits; even cutting back late in pregnancy can reduce the risk for low birth weight.

Drinking Alcohol

Alcohol can cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), one of the leading forms of mental retardation and physical abnormalities in the U.S. The severity of FAS is directly related to the amount of alcohol ingested by the mother during pregnancy.

While the risks of drinking large amounts—two or more drinks per day—are well known, it’s not known how safe even very low amounts of alcohol are during pregnancy. Don’t fret if you had a few drinks before you knew you were pregnant, but until more research is done it is smart and safe to abstain from wine, beer and other alcoholic drinks until after your baby is born. Then you’ll have plenty of reason to celebrate!

Drinking Large Amounts of Caffeine

A moderate amount of caffeine—a couple of cups of coffee or tea a day—is considered safe during pregnancy, but a large amount—6 or more 10-oz cups of coffee a day, for example—is not. Too much caffeine can increase the risk of low birth weight, preterm delivery and stillbirth.

You may never drink that much, but it’s important to keep in mind that many coffee drinks contain more caffeine ounce per ounce than regular coffee. Soft drinks and chocolate can also include caffeine, so monitor your total caffeine intake to be sure you’re not eating and drinking more than you realize.

For every 8 oz of caffeinated beverage you drink, drink 8 oz of water, in addition to the 6–8 glasses of water you already are drinking.

After reviewing research on the topic, the American College Of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states that pregnant women can drink up to 200 mg of caffeine a day without worrying about raising the risk of miscarriage or preterm birth.

For the record:

  • An 8-oz. cup of coffee contains about 137 mg. of caffeine.
  • 8 oz. of tea contains 48 mg.
  • 12 oz. of caffeinated soda has 37 mg.
  • 12 oz. of hot cocoa contains 8–12 mg.

Other Drugs

Drugs other than those approved by your doctor are never safe in pregnancy. Marijuana, like cigarette smoke, reduces the amount of oxygen a baby receives, and may result in a low birth weight and other problems. Cocaine use increases the chance of preterm birth by 25%. Babies who survive exposure to illegal drugs during pregnancy are very likely to have lifelong physical, behavioral and emotional issues. Some exposed infants will experience withdrawal as newborns, requiring a longer hospital stay.