Hesperian Health Guides

Things to avoid during pregnancy and breastfeeding

Every day 20,000 people visit the HealthWiki for lifesaving health information. A gift of just $5 helps make this possible!

Make a giftMake a gift to support this essential health information people depend on.

HealthWiki > A Book for Midwives > Chapter 4: Helping women stay healthy > Things to avoid during pregnancy and breastfeeding

Sicknesses, drugs, and poisonous chemicals are not healthy for anyone. They are particularly dangerous in pregnancy and while breastfeeding. The following things are the most dangerous in the first 3 months of pregnancy, but they can be dangerous at all times.

Stay away from people with rubella and other sicknesses

a child with spots on his face.
Pregnant women should stay away from people with sicknesses or rashes.

It is best for pregnant women to stay away from people who are sick. This will help protect them from becoming sick themselves.

Some sicknesses are particularly dangerous to pregnant women or their babies. Rubella (German measles) is one sickness that can cause serious birth defects or disabilities in the baby, including deafness and heart problems, and can even cause death.

Avoid taking medicines

pills, medicine bottles, and plants.
Pregnant women should only take medicines that are safe in pregnancy and that are truly needed.

When a woman takes medicines, they pass through her blood to her baby. Medicines that are safe for a grown woman or even a child can be dangerous to the tiny baby inside the womb.

Cough syrups, pain relievers, some modern medicines, and some plant medicines can all be dangerous. Some of them can cause birth defects or disabilities in the baby, including disabilities that affect thinking or the brain.

If possible, pregnant women and women who are breastfeeding should not take medicines. If a woman is sick and needs medicine, find out if this medicine is safe in pregnancy or while breastfeeding. Look in the green medicine pages at the end of this book or ask a doctor if the medicine is safe. If plant medicines are used in your community, try to learn which ones are safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Most of the medicines we recommend in this book are safe to take during pregnancy or breastfeeding. (If they are not safe, we will include a warning about when they can be dangerous.) But even drugs that are safe should only be taken when they are truly needed. Rest, water, and healthful foods are often enough to cure sicknesses and other problems.

Avoid smoking, alcohol, and other drugs

Cigarette smoke, alcohol, and other drugs are all harmful to the mother. When a woman smokes, drinks, or takes drugs, they also pass through her blood to her baby.

a woman smoking a cigarette and drinking alcohol; the baby inside her is shown smoking and drinking.
Whatever a mother puts into her body passes to her baby.

Smoking is dangerous for anyone. It can lead to serious problems including cancer. When a pregnant woman smokes, or even when she breathes the smoke from someone near her, her blood vessels get smaller and do not carry as much air or food to her baby. Because of this, babies of women who smoke are more likely to be small or sick.

Drinking a lot of alcohol can be dangerous for anyone. Heavy drinking can lead to many illnesses including serious problems of the liver. When a pregnant woman drinks, even just 1 or 2 drinks a day, her baby can have birth defects or disabilities that affect the brain.

Some drugs, particularly opium, heroin, cocaine, and barbiturates, are very addictive and dangerous. When a pregnant woman takes these drugs, her baby can be born with a drug addiction or with other serious health problems.

If you work with a woman who may be addicted to alcohol or other drugs, try to find help for her. She may be able to stop if she understands the risks to her and her baby. Advise her to stay away from people who are smoking, drinking, or taking drugs.

You may be able to help her find others in your community who have stopped using alcohol or drugs and who meet to support each other. The book Where Women Have No Doctor has more ideas about how to help someone stop abusing alcohol and drugs.

a woman speaking in a group of women.
I'm so glad I can talk to you all instead of having another drink.

Stay away from chemicals and fumes

Strong chemicals used for cleaning, and poisons used to kill pests in the fields or at home, are dangerous for everyone. They are especially dangerous to women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. These chemicals can cause miscarriage, infertility, birth defects, cancer, and other illnesses.

Any chemical with a strong smell is probably not safe. Many dangerous chemicals have no smell at all.

If possible, everyone should avoid these dangerous chemicals. But a pregnant woman should have no contact with them. She should not use them herself or breathe chemical fumes or dust. Her family should not store food in containers that once had chemicals inside. Tiny amounts of the chemicals may be left in the container even after it is washed — enough to harm a person's health!

Families should try not to use chemicals at all. But many people who work with chemicals have no choice. It is part of their job at a factory, on a farm, cleaning, or somewhere else. People who use chemicals at work may be able to talk to the other workers about the problem. Maybe all the workers together can talk to the owner about using fewer chemicals or using safer ones.

This page was updated:11 Sep 2019