Substance Use: Low Among Pregnant Women, High In New Mothers

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

A new national report provides both encouraging and discouraging news about the use of substances by pregnant women and new mothers. Based on a nationwide survey, the report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) suggests that most women are heeding warnings about the dangers that substance use during pregnancy can pose to fetuses and are abstaining -- especially in the latter stages of their pregnancies.

However, this report, as well as a new study published today by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, show that the number of women who drink alcohol while pregnant is disturbingly high, despite past Surgeon Generals’ warnings about the dangers of drinking alcohol while pregnant. According to a 15 year-study by the CDC, the number of women who drink alcohol while pregnant is not decreasing – with approximately 1 in 8 women drinking any amount of alcohol while pregnant.

In addition, the data from the SAMHSA report suggest that once they give birth, many new mothers resume the use of alcohol, cigarettes, illicit drugs or engage in binge drinking.

Substance use rates were lowest among women in the third trimester of pregnancy. For example, the rate of past month alcohol use was 6.2 percent; binge alcohol use, 1.0 percent; cigarette use, 13.9 percent; and marijuana use, 1.4 percent.


Still, a sizeable proportion of women in the first trimester of pregnancy were past month users of alcohol, cigarettes, or marijuana, and one in seven women used cigarettes in the second or third trimester. However, some of the pregnant women who used substances in their first trimester may not have been aware that they were pregnant at the time. In the month leading up to the survey interview, 19.0 percent of women in their first trimester of pregnancy used alcohol, 8.0 percent engaged in binge drinking, 21.8 percent smoked cigarettes, and 4.6 percent used marijuana.

Among the report’s most significant findings was that many postpartum women rapidly resume substance use. For example, when compared with women in the third trimester of pregnancy, non-pregnant women with children under 3 months old in the household had much higher rates of past month alcohol use (6.2 vs. 31.9 percent), binge alcohol use (1 vs. 10 percent), cigarette use (13.9 vs. 20.4 percent), and marijuana use (1.4 vs. 3.8 percent), suggesting resumption of substance use among many mothers in the 3 months after childbirth.

Past month alcohol use among women aged 18 to 44 was highest for those who were not pregnant and did not have children living in the household (63 percent) but comparatively low for women in the first trimester of pregnancy (19 percent), and even lower for those in the second (7.8 percent) or third trimester (6.2 percent). Similar patterns were seen with marijuana, cigarette, and binge alcohol use.

“Alcohol, cigarette, and illicit drug use during pregnancy can cause poor pregnancy outcomes and early childhood behavioral and development problems, and use after pregnancy exposes children to a variety of negative effects. These problems can limit a child’s potential, are costly and 100 percent preventable” said SAMHSA’s Acting Administrator, Eric Broderick, D.D.S, M.P.H.

Substance Use among Women during Pregnancy and Following Childbirth is drawn from SAMHSA’s 2002 through 2007 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) which collected data from a nationally representative sample of approximately 113,000 civilian, noninstitutional females aged 18 to 44 including approximately 6,000 who were pregnant at the time of the survey interview.