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Sample Essay on the Effects of Various Substances on Fetal Development

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The environment and development of a fetus are both extremely delicate. So many different things can affect fetal development both positively and negatively. Because a fetus is so vulnerable, it is especially sensitive to various substances (Das 2015). This sample health essay discusses how certain substances, like alcohol, cigarettes, and illicit drugs can have several devastating effects on fetal development and should be avoided during pregnancy. 

Alcohol on fetal development

Fetal alcohol syndrome is the most serious consequence of drinking during pregnancy. In 1973, the syndrome was first described by researchers who had identified a set of specific facial abnormalities in children of mothers who admitted to drinking heavily while pregnant. They include,

“Short eyelid openings (palpebral fissures), flat midface, thin upper lip, and a flat or smooth groove between note and upper lip (philtrum)” (Jacobson and Jacobson).

In addition, these children exhibited significant cognitive and behavioral problems and growth delays. Fetal alcohol syndrome differs from Down syndrome in the way that those with Down syndrome experience impairment in almost all intellectual functions. Fetal alcohol syndrome patients tend to perform relatively well on language tests (though they typically have difficulty with more complex language tests like those on the pragmatic facet of language).

Fetal alcohol syndrome patients most consistently experience deficits in attentional function and arithmetic. Many have an IQ below 70, the standard for mental retardation, a significant number report scores between average and low-average criteria (Jacobson and Jacobson). In a comparison of test scores between children with fetal alcohol syndrome and children who were not exposed to alcohol but have low IQs, the two groups performed at the same level in reading but the children with fetal alcohol syndrome scored much lower in arithmetic and attentional functions.

Kids with fetal alchohol syndrome

These include being able to adapt to feedback, the ability to coordinate a plan, and being able to execute appropriate emotional response (Jacobson and Jacobson). Children with fetal alcohol syndrome also tend to have poor socioemotional development in relation to their IQ scores.

Slightly less serious than fetal alcohol syndrome are fetal alcohol effects and alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder. Fetal alcohol effects refers to children whose mothers excessively used alcohol while they were pregnant but only display some of the characteristics of fetal alcohol syndrome. These children also have lower IQ scores, though they typically score slightly higher than children with fetal alcohol syndrome. The Institute of Medicine has established three distinct forms of fetal alcohol effects in the interest of increasing the precision of diagnoses. 

  • Alcohol-related birth defects refers to those whose mothers consumed excessive amounts of alcohol and have experienced at least one congenial abnormality, typically auditory, cardiac, ocular, renal, or skeletal. 
  • Partial FAS is applied to children who have confirmed prenatal alcohol exposure, physical growth or developmental abnormalities, and exhibit some components of facial dysmorphology associated with alcohol (Jacobson and Jacobson). 

Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder is the final classification. This term applies to children whose mothers consumed heavy amounts of alcohol while pregnant and show measurable symptoms similar to fetal alcohol syndrome, though the symptoms are generally subtler. Reduced IQ scores are not usually found, but these children do show developmental deficits in the facets most seriously affected by fetal alcohol syndrome.

The delays tend to be in arithmetic, attentional function, and socioemotional function (Jacobson and Jacobson). This third distinction affects many more children than fetal alcohol syndrome but, luckily, the symptoms are significantly less severe. The term ‘fetal alcohol spectrum disorders’ refers collectively to fetal alcohol syndrome and the three classifications of fetal alcohol effects.

Other negative effects of alcohol on fetal development are not as obvious. Children with increased prenatal alcohol exposure demonstrated deficits in sustained attention tasks that require active recall. One study in 1998 found poor performance among children in this group on serial reaction time tasks, which requires recalling motor patterns of keystrokes and timed reading comprehension exams (Jacobson and Jacobson).

Another study showed that children exposed to alcohol scored lower than control groups on delayed reaction times tests. The results of both of these studies indicate that there is impairment among alcohol-exposed children in sustained attention and executive function. A number of other studies also report that these children experience deficits in their abilities to maintain attention when confronted with distractions. This has also been found in children with lower alcohol exposure, like the levels associated with alcohol-related neurodevelopment disorder (Jacobson and Jacobson). Still, though, these levels of impairment are slightly lower than the impairment experienced by children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Another consequence of alcohol exposure to fetal development is an impaired socioemotional function (“Effects of Alcohol on a Fetus”). Infants exposed to alcohol in utero show increased levels of irritability, which can contribute to poor maternal attachment and behavioral problems later in life (Jacobson and Jacobson). These children were generally more aggressive in classroom settings and less socially competent than their peers. They also displayed decreased interpersonal skills and the ability to conform to social norms (Jacobson and Jacobson). The children in this group showed an inability to consider the consequences of their actions and a lack of responsiveness to social cues.

Tobacco and fetal development

Like alcohol, cigarettes can have negative effects on fetal development in children whose mothers smoked heavily during their pregnancies. One of the risks is a low weight at birth. On average, newborns of mothers who smoke more than ten cigarettes per day were 250 grams lighter than infants of mothers who did not smoke (Jaakkola and Gissler). It was determined that mothers who smoked were twice as likely to have a baby with a low birth weight, one and a half times more likely to go into preterm labor, and three times as likely to have babies that were small for their gestational age (Jaakkola and Gissler).

Though the small gestational age does not increase the risk of asthma, low birthweight and preterm delivery did. It has also been found that the risk of developing asthma during the first seven years of life was closely related to the mother’s smoking habits during her pregnancy. Low birthweight increases the risk of asthma development by eighty three percent while preterm delivery increases the risk by sixty four percent (Jaakkola and Gissler). In addition, the risk of a child developing asthma, before the age of seven increases by twenty five percent when the mother smokes less than ten cigarettes a day and thirty six percent when the mother smoked more than ten cigarettes per day (Jaakkola and Gissler).

The study was done with participants of all ages, socioeconomic classes, and infant genders and the results were consistent among all smoking mothers. Another study found that babies who are exposed to cigarettes before and after birth have an increased risk of dying from sudden infant death syndrome (“Smoking During Pregnancy”). Cigarettes clearly have a negative effect on fetal development.

Street drugs and fetal development

Illegal street drugs can also have a negative effect on fetal development. Cocaine, for example, will cross through the placenta and enter the fetus’ circulation. Cocaine will also last much longer in a fetus’ body than it does in an adult’s body. Cocaine use during pregnancy is dangerous at any time. In the beginning of the pregnancy, cocaine use can increase the risk of miscarriage. Later on in pregnancy, the use of cocaine can cause placental abruption, severe bleeding, and fetal death.

It can also lead to preterm birth. According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecology, women who use cocaine while pregnant have a twenty five percent increased chance of premature labor, which can cause complications for both mother and infant. Babies born to mothers who used cocaine during pregnancy also tend to be smaller and experience restricted growth.

If the mother uses cocaine later in her pregnancy, the baby can be born dependent and suffer withdrawal symptoms like difficulty feeding, muscle spasms, tremors, and sleeplessness (“Using Illegal Drugs During Pregnancy”). Defects of the brain, kidneys, and genitals are not uncommon, nor are learning delays later in life.

Similarly, heroin will also cross through the placenta to the baby. It is so addictive that even minimal use can cause the fetus to become dependent on it. Children born to mothers who used heroin during pregnancy have an increased chance of premature birth, low birth weight, and low blood sugar. Other possible effects include bleeding in the baby’s brain, difficulty breathing, and infant death.

Different drugs mean different disorders


Babies who are born addicted to heroin will also suffer withdrawal upon being born. These symptoms include fever, diarrhea, irritability, convulsions, joint stiffness, and sleep abnormalities (“Using Illegal Drugs During Pregnancy”). Women who inject narcotics are also more susceptible to HIV, which can be passed along to their unborn children.

Other drugs, like PCP and LSD also have the ability to damage a fetus. PCP and LSD are both hallucinogenic drugs. Both drugs can cause users to behave violently and aggressively, which can harm the baby if the mother hurts herself or is too rough. The extended use of LSD during pregnancy can lead to a wide range of birth defects in the children exposed. The use of PCP during pregnancy also has a number of negative effects on fetal development. Risks include low birth weight, brain damage, poor muscle control, and withdrawal symptoms if used frequently enough or late enough in pregnancy (“Using Illegal Drugs During Pregnancy”). 

Methamphetamines also carry serious risks to fetal development if used during pregnancy. When a pregnant woman takes methamphetamine, it causes her heart rate to increase and in turn, the baby’s heart rate increase as well. Continued use of methamphetamine during pregnancy can have similar effects to cocaine use. Its use can prevent the baby from getting enough oxygen to their brains, which can lead to lower, less healthy birth weights (Behnke and Smith 2013).

In addition, methamphetamine use during pregnancy can also greatly increase the likelihood of placental abruption, premature labor, and miscarriage. When babies are born to mothers who used methamphetamine while pregnant, they suffer withdrawal symptoms like feeding difficulties, sleeplessness, muscle spasms, and tremors. Those children also tend to experience learning difficulties later on in life (“Using Illegal Drugs During Pregnancy”). The use of methamphetamines can have devastating and lasting effects on the well-being of the fetus.


Fetal development is an incredibly complex and intricate process that can be effected positively or negatively by various substances. Certain substances are more dangerous to fetal development than others and should be avoided by mothers who are expecting. Alcohol, cigarettes, and various street drugs can all have terribly negative effects on the health, development, and well-being of a delicate fetus.

Works Cited

Benke, Marylou, and Smith, Vincent C. “Prenatal Substance Abuse: Short- and Long-term Effects on the Exposed Fetus.” The American Academy of Pediatrics. 131.3 (2013): 9-24. Print. 

Das, Aninda. “Alcohol, Drugs, and Babies: Do You Need to Worry?” HealthLine. HealthLine, 8 Mar. 2016. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. < http://www.healthline.com/health/pregnancy/alcohol-drugs#Overview1>.

“Effects of Alcohol on a Fetus” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2007. Web. <http://www.fasdcenter.samhsa.gov/documents/wynk_effects_fetus.pdf>.

Jacobson, Joseph L. and Jacobson, Sandra W. “Effects of Prenatal Alcohol Exposure on Child Development.” National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. National Institutes ofHealth, 2003. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. < http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh26-4/282-286.htm>.

Jaakkola, Jouni J. K., and Mika Gissler. “Maternal Smoking in Pregnancy, Fetal Development, and Childhood Asthma.” American Journal of Public Health 94.1 (2004): 136–140. Print.

“Smoking During Pregnancy.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC, n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. <http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/basic_information/health_effects/pregnancy>.

“Using Illegal Drugs During Pregnancy.” American Pregnancy Association. American Pregnancy Association, 2016. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.



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Ultius, Inc. "Sample Essay on the Effects of Various Substances on Fetal Development." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. April 23, 2016 https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/sample-essay-on-the-effects-of-various-substances-on-fetal-development.html.

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Ultius, Inc. "Sample Essay on the Effects of Various Substances on Fetal Development." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. April 23, 2016 https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/sample-essay-on-the-effects-of-various-substances-on-fetal-development.html.

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