Mothers to be, don’t reach for the bottle – reach for help

Mental distress and substance abuse during pregnancy can severely impact your baby

Monday, September 26 2022

Women who are pregnant or trying to conceive but are struggling with substance abuse, are placing not only their own mental and physical health in jeopardy but that of the unborn child they may be carrying.

This is according to Dr Bavi Vythilingum, a specialist psychiatrist practising at Netcare Akeso Kenilworth, who says that alcohol and other addictive substances can have devastating impacts on a growing foetus, with potentially serious developmental consequences.

“Studies indicate that women who use alcohol during pregnancy are often suffering from mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or other disorders. Women who are unable to stop drinking even though they know it can be harmful to their baby, are in desperate need of mental healthcare so that they can better look after themselves as well as the infant for whom they will soon be responsible.


Dr Vythilingum stresses the importance of knowing that it is never too late to stop the use of alcohol and other substances during pregnancy, because foetal brain growth continues throughout the gestational period. The sooner you stop, the better your child’s chances of healthy development will be.

“By the same token, women who are actively trying to fall pregnant should not use alcohol, smoke or use other addictive substances such as recreational drugs at all. Women generally may only find out that they are pregnant around six to eight weeks in, and you may unwittingly expose your unborn child during this period.

“Pregnancy can be a stressful time and may be all the more difficult for those who have pre-existing mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety. It is of the utmost importance for your wellbeing and that of your child to focus on replacing alcohol and other substances with healthy mechanisms to help you cope, such as breathing exercises, walking or pregnancy yoga. It is also essential to seek professional mental help if you find you are unable to stop using substances during your pregnancy, so that you can begin to address the underlying concerns and find practical and effective ways of managing these.

“The development of your baby, as well as your own mental state, will be further supported by healthy food choices and maintaining a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein and fibre, while avoiding processed foods as far as possible. Many people who use alcohol to destress are unaware that it in fact increases stress levels over time. By exercising and supplying your body with good nutrition, you are giving yourself and your baby a stronger foundation.  

“Finally, women who need to take certain medications for their health, such as chronic medication or antidepressants, should not stop taking these upon discovering that they are pregnant but should discuss which medicines are safe and which are not safe to use during pregnancy with their treating doctor. Many antidepressants are safe during pregnancy, and it is important to keep a handle on your mental health rather than to turn to alcohol and other substances,” she concludes.  

Dr Vythilingum notes that pregnant women struggling with substance abuse should not avoid reaching out, as mental health professionals understand that help is needed without judgement. She suggests talking to a therapist or contacting the following helplines:

The Department of Social Development Substance Abuse 24-hour helpline
0800 12 13 14

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group
011 234 4837

Local Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups can also provide help with finding a sponsor who can assist with helping you to manage your addiction.


About Netcare Akeso
Netcare Akeso operates a network of private in-patient mental health facilities and is part of the Netcare Group. Netcare Akeso provides individual, integrated and family-oriented treatment in specialised in-patient treatment facilities, as well as certain outpatient services, for a range of psychiatric, psychological and substance use conditions. Please visit or contact [email protected] for further information. The COPE Therapy website also contains many useful blog posts on various issues and tips relating to mental health.
In the event of a psychological crisis, call 0861 435 787, 24 hours a day for emergency support. Psychiatrist consultations can be made through Netcare appointmed™, online at or by calling 0861 555 565. Outpatient psychologist and occupational therapist consultations can be booked via
For media enquiries, contact MNA at the contact details listed below.

Issued by:                    MNA on behalf of Netcare Akeso Kenilworth
For media enquiries contact:    Martina Nicholson, Meggan Saville, Estene Lotriet-Vorster and Clementine Forsthofer
Telephone:            (011) 469 3016
Email:    [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] [email protected] or [email protected]