Antenatal care Series

Healthy Pregnancy Habits: Beware❗Teratogens❌🚭

Some substances have been scientifically proven unhealthy for pregnancy


A teratogen is any agent that disrupts a baby’s development when a person is exposed to it during pregnancy. Known teratogens include alcohol, smoking, toxic chemicals, radiation, viruses, and certain prescription drugs.

Teratogens can cause harm from conception to delivery but often cause the most damage in the first 8 weeks of pregnancy. Everyone planning to get pregnant should know what teratogens are and how to avoid them since they can cause harm throughout pregnancy, starting around the time of conception. For instance, the risk of miscarriage is higher when you smoke or drink alcohol or are exposed to radiation and certain toxic chemicals. These and other teratogens are also linked to premature births.

According to research findings, 4% to 5% of birth defects are caused by teratogens. These include physical malformations, like spina bifida, cleft palate, or microcephaly (when the brain and skull are underdeveloped), as well as vision and hearing problems. Teratogens can also affect cognitive development. Babies born to a parent who drinks alcohol or has certain health conditions, like thyroid disorders, have been shown to have lower IQ scores.

⛔ Some teratogens, including alcohol and smoking, have a more harmful impact on a developing (fetus) baby than others

⛔ The harm to a fetus increases the more the pregnant woman consumes or is exposed to a teratogen
⛔ The longer a fetus is exposed to a teratogen, the more dangerous the effects
⛔ Teratogens are most harmful early in pregnancy, starting about 10 to 14 days after conception to about 8 weeks into pregnancy

Types of Teratogens
Teratogens can lurk in your house, garden, medicine cabinet, and even inside your body. Knowing what these dangerous agents are is the first step to protecting yourself and your baby.

  1. Alcohol
    Wine, beer, and all other types of alcohol can harm a baby during pregnancy. Alcohol crosses the placenta through the umbilical cord to a developing baby and can cause stillbirth and miscarriage. Alcohol can also create a lifelong spectrum of physical, behavioural, and intellectual disorders known as fetal alcohol syndrome.

2. Smoking Cigarettes
Smoking cigarettes negatively impacts fertility, increases the risk of pregnancy complications like stillbirth and miscarriage, and is linked to several birth defects. Specifically, smoking can damage fragile, growing tissue in a developing baby’s lungs and brain.

3. Recreational Drugs
About 1 in 20 pregnant people takes street drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and heroin during pregnancy, which is very harmful to fetal development. These drugs are linked to infertility, premature birth, miscarriage, low birth weight, and birth defects.

4. Certain Medications
For example, thalidomide was a medication commonly given to pregnant people in the 1950s to treat morning sickness. It was later found to cause malformations in babies’ limbs, organs, and other body parts. Banned in 1961, thalidomide was one of the first teratogens to be discovered and regulated to protect pregnant people and babies.
Even some doctor-approved medications can be harmful as soon as you conceive. Neurological drugs, like antiepileptic medications, can cause cognitive defects in babies, and blood thinners are linked to certain congenital malformations. Accutane, retinoids, and other skincare medications containing vitamin A can cause severe abnormalities, including cleft palates and intellectual disabilities.

How to Avoid Teratogens
Some teratogens, like certain genetic conditions, are tough to avoid. But there are many things you can do to steer clear of some of the most dangerous teratogens. Because teratogens cause harm starting around conception, it is a good idea to take these steps while trying to get pregnant or first learning you are pregnant:

Ø Do not take any medications without consulting with your doctor first. That includes acne treatments and over-the-counter pain relievers.
Ø Inquire with your workplace’s human resources department about any toxic chemicals you may be exposed to at work. A leave of absence to protect yourself is not a bad idea.

A Word for Every Pregnant Woman
While protecting your unborn child from every potential developmental concern might not lie entirely under your control, however, knowing about and doing your best to keep away from the most dangerous teratogens, like alcohol and smoking, is an important step to ensure your baby has the best possible chance of growing healthy and strong.

Author: Elizabeth Adegboro RN
Edited by: Adejoke Opeyemi-Ogungbire (MPH)