Avoiding Teratogens in Pregnancy

The word teratogen comes from the Greek word, teras, meaning “malformation” or “monstrosity” (Berk, L., Development Through the Lifespan, p. 81). During pregnancy, it’s extremely important to take care of yourself and your baby, and many mothers don’t know about teratogens, or certain aspects of their environment that could cause damage during the prenatal period. However, many effects of teratogens go beyond immediate physical damage. Some health effects are delayed and may not show up for decades. 

Here are three of the most common teratogens.  Recognizing them and understanding their effect on your body, and that of your unborn children, will help you know what to avoid. 

Prescription and Nonprescription Drugs

In the early 1960s, the world learned a tragic lesson about drugs and prenatal development. At that time, a sedative called thalidomide was widely available in Canada, Europe and South America. When taken by mothers 4 to 6 weeks after conception, thalidomide produced gross deformities of the embryo’s developing arms and legs and, less frequently, damage to the ears, heart, kidneys and genitals. 

Currently, the most widely used teratogen is isotretinoin (brand Accutane), prescribed to treat severe acne and taken by hundreds of thousands of women. Exposure during the first trimester results in eye, ear, skull, brain, heart, and immune system abnormalities (Yook et a., 2012). 

Even with nonprescription drugs, it is vital to consult your doctor before taking any medication. Aspirin is one of the most common nonprescription drugs that pregnant women take without consulting their doctors. Some research suggests that aspirin use is linked to brain damage leading to impaired motor control, inattention and overactivity (Barr et al., 1990; Kozer et al., 2003; Thompson et al., 2014; Tyler et al., 2012). 

Because children’s lives are involved, we must take these findings seriously. However, we cannot be sure that these frequently used drugs actually and always cause problems. Therefore, we must be very careful with what we take, especially when combining medications, and make sure that we consult our doctors with any drug. 

Tobacco

Research shows that about 11 percent of U.S. women smoke during their pregnancies (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015n). The most common effect of smoking during pregnancy is low birth weight. The likelihood of other serious consequences, however, such as miscarriage, prematurity, cleft lip and palate, blood vessel abnormalities, impaired heart rate and breathing during sleep, infant death, and asthma and cancer later in childhood, also increases (Geerts, et al., 2012; Havstad et al., 2012; Howell, Coles, & Kable, 2008; Mossey et al., 2009). The more cigarettes a mother smokes, the greater the chances that her baby will be affected. Likewise, the earlier she stops smoking, the greater the benefit. 

Alcohol

There are a number of alcohol related diseases that many children are born with and, on top of that, there are a plethora of effects that accompany children born of alcohol-drinking mothers. The more alcohol a woman consumes during pregnancy, the poorer the child’s motor coordination, speed of information processing, reasoning, intelligence and achievement test scores during the preschool and school years (Burden, Jacobsen & Jacobsen, 2005; Mattson, Calarco, & Lang, 2006). About 25% of U.S. mothers report drinking at some time during their pregnancies (Rentner, Dixon, & Lengel, 2012). 

How much alcohol is safe during pregnancy? Even mild drinking, less than one drink per day, is associated with reduced head size (a measure of brain development), slow body growth, and behavior problems (Flak et al., 2014; Martinez-Frias et al., 2004). Therefore, no amount of alcohol is safe. 

Armed with this knowledge of various teratogens, be aware of what you put into your body when you are pregnant in order to bring the healthiest baby possible into this world!

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