The Effects of Barbiturates on the Fetus in Pregnancy

Newborn baby boy in hosptal cot
Barbiturate use in pregnancy can cause complications in the newborn. (Image: FamVeld/iStock/Getty Images)

Barbiturates such as phenobarbital are used to treat epilepsy. These medications are a type of depressant and act on the brain to inhibit the misfiring of the brain in epilepsy. Barbiturates are also a common drug of abuse. Women who abuse barbiturates can experience memory loss, irritability and changes in alertness. Pregnant women who abuse barbiturates or use them for epilepsy control, can have complications in the fetus.

Hemorrahgic Disease of the Newborn

Barbiturates can cause bleeding in the newborn, according to the Epilepsy Foundation. Phenobarbital blocks vitamin K from crossing the placenta to baby. Vitamin K is a necessary component of clotting factors in the bloodstream--without vitamin K, the blood will not clot. This leaves the infant susceptible to serious bleeding within the first 24 hours of life. Trauma sustained while coming down the birth canal can cause bleeding in the brain or other internal bleeding. Vitamin K supplementation can help prevent this complication.

Birth Defects

Women with epilepsy have a 4 to 8 percent chance of having a baby born with a major malformation due to anti-epileptic drugs. Women who do not use anti-epileptic drugs have a 2 to 3 percent chance of having a baby with a major malformation. Women who abuse barbiturates are at the higher level of risk. Cleft lip, which is an opening in the upper lip, or cleft palate, which is an opening in the roof of the mouth, can occur, according to the Epilepsy Foundation. Barbiturates can also cause cardiac abnormalities and neural tube defects, which are defects of the spinal cord. Babies born to mothers using barbiturates may also have minor physical defects such as hypertelorism, or very widely spaced eyes.

Other Complications

MayoClinic.com notes that barbiturate use in pregnancy has the potential to cause dependency and behavioral problems in the infant. Infants who are born addicted to barbiturates can have respiratory distress, disturbed sleep, sweating, irritability and fever. They may not feed well and fail to thrive. There is also concern that infants exposed to barbiturate use in pregnancy may be at risk for brain tumors.

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