An Investigation into the Lasting Impact of Exposure to Alcohol and Drugs During Foetal Life

It is well recognised that substance use during pregnancy can harm the developing foetus, leading to potential cognitive dysfunction and mental and behavioural difficulties in later life.

Longitudinal studies, which track participants over an extended amount of time, allow researchers to examine specific factors that may influence the growth and development of an individual. 

Despite the frequent co-occurrence of prenatal alcohol exposure and instances of childhood maltreatment, there has been little research investigating the complicated relationship between the factors and potential long term impact.

In a recent study, published in Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers from Finland have examined data collected from youth born in 1992–2001 to mothers with a significant substance misuse problem during pregnancy. Follow up data was collected around 2007 and 2016.

Results found that:

  • Substance misusing mothers displayed significant long-term morbidity, mortality and loss of productivity after delivery
  • During their first decade of life, the exposed children frequently used healthcare services for mental and behavioural disorders, especially those who were placed in out-of-home care 
  • As the participants approached adulthood, exposed adolescents and adults faced more difficulties than their unexposed age-mates. 
  • Fewer exposed youths completed secondary education and were more likely to have received social assistance due to mental and behavioural issues.
  • 63.9% of the exposed youths had been placed outside the biological parent’s home at least once during the follow-up

The research adds to the evidence that links prenatal exposure to substances to adverse developmental consequences. The study also suggests, though does not directly provide evidence for, the equally damaging impact of neglect, abuse and maltreatment. 

Further research following young people through childhood into adulthood can build on our understanding of the impact of prenatal substance exposure and can help inform intervention that can support expectant parents.

Koponen, A. M., Nissinen, N. M., Gissler, M., Sarkola, T., Autti-Rämö, I., & Kahila, H. (2019). Cohort profile: ADEF Helsinki–a longitudinal register-based study on exposure to alcohol and drugs during foetal life. Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 1455072519885719.