Pregnant Women and Addiction

For many women, pregnancy is an exciting time of life that is full of wonder, change, and expectations. However, if pregnant women are struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, it can be a time of uncertainty, fear, and apprehension.

Drug and alcohol use during pregnancy can pose risks to the mother and unborn baby. Many women who are pregnant and struggling with substance misuse feel ashamed or worried about the potential consequences. These feelings may create barriers that prevent expectant women from getting the treatment they need while pregnant. Fortunately, there are safe, effective, and non-judgmental treatment options available.

Pregnancy and Addiction

young woman with depression feeling sad and looking out the window at the rain

It is estimated that up to 5% of pregnant women use addictive substances.1 When a woman is pregnant, the unborn baby is connected to her through the umbilical cord and placenta. This system enables the fetus to get vital nutrients, oxygen, and life support. However, this connection can also pass substances that the mother ingests, such as drugs or alcohol, to the fetus.1

Risks and Potential Effects of Substance Use During Pregnancy

Tobacco, alcohol and drug use by the mother can directly impact the fetus. This is true for both legally prescribed medications such as benzodiazepines as well as illicit drugs, such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines. Recreational substances like marijuana and alcohol can also impact an unborn baby.1 The impact varies and is based on several variables, including the type of substance used, amount used, and factors specific to the mother.1

Risks associated with drug or alcohol use during pregnancy can range in severity and can include:2

  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
  • Miscarriage.
  • Premature labor.
  • Stillbirth.
  • Neonatal abstinence syndrome.
  • Placental abruption.

Additional medical conditions that occur with addiction can complicate pregnancy. For example, mothers who ingest opioids or other drugs intravenously (IV) are at risk of contracting infectious diseases such as HIV. Additional medical conditions associated with addiction can include:3

  • Blood and tissue infections.
  • Hepatitis-C.
  • Endocarditis.
  • Organ dysfunction.
  • Diabetes.

Risks and Effects of Alcohol Use During Pregnancy

The effects of alcohol use during pregnancy can lead to short-term and long-term problems for the unborn baby. Common risks of alcohol use during pregnancy include:2

  • Low birth weight.
  • The development of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD).
  • Cognitive and developmental delays.
  • Behavioral problems.

Risks and Effects of Marijuana Use During Pregnancy

The impact of marijuana use during pregnancy includes:5

  • Lower birth weight.
  • Behavioral challenges.
  • Attention difficulties.
  • Increased risk of stillbirth.

Risks and Effects of Cocaine Use During Pregnancy

It is difficult to determine the direct effects of cocaine use during pregnancy because most women who use cocaine also use other substances such as alcohol or illicit drugs, receive little to no prenatal care, and have poor nutrition.1 However, research shows that cocaine can contribute to:1

  • An increased risk for maternal seizures and migraines.
  • Placental abruption.
  • Premature labor.
  • Miscarriage.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Low birth weight.
  • Smaller head circumference.
  • Babies experiencing symptoms of irritability, tremors, and hyperactivity after birth.

Risks and Effects of Heroin Use During Pregnancy

The effects of heroin use on the fetus can be severe. Risks of heroin use during pregnancy can include:2

  • The fetus experiencing withdrawal symptoms after birth called neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS).
  • Seizures.
  • Low birth weight.
  • Difficulty feeding.
  • Respiratory problems.
  • Death.

Risks and Effects of Methamphetamine Use During Pregnancy

Risks of methamphetamine use during pregnancy include:1

  • Increased risk of placental abruption.
  • High blood pressure in the mother.
  • Possible organ damage for the mother.
  • Low birth weight in babies.
  • Cognitive problems in children, including poor attention and lower academic performance.
  • Longer-term emotional and mental health problems in children, such as anxiety and depression.

Pregnancy and Barriers to Addiction Treatment

Many pregnant women struggling with a substance use disorder (SUD) are afraid of disclosing their addiction to others for fear of stigma, judgment and repercussions. More specifically, barriers to accessing treatment for pregnant women include:6

  • Fear of disclosing SUDs to healthcare providers.6
  • Fear of being labeled an “addict”.6
  • Feeling that they cannot find a qualified treatment center that can handle their unique needs.6
  • Risk of uncertainty in how they will be treated and cared for once they disclose their substance use.6
  • Fear of being reported to Child Protective Services (CPS).6
  • Feelings of guilt, confusion, stigmatization, shame, and self-blame about substance use while pregnant.6
  • Fear of losing their child.6
  • Concern that homelessness and addiction could lead to having their child taken away.

Fortunately, there are resources available to help pregnant women with SUDs get the help they need and deserve.

Addiction Recovery While Pregnant

Accessing addiction recovery services while pregnant is incredibly beneficial for both the mother and the unborn baby. Benefits of substance abuse treatment include:7

  • Peer support.
  • Prenatal/medical care including referrals to OBGYNs and other medical professionals.
  • Psychosocial support.
  • Nutritional support.
  • Referrals to childcare.
  • Medications.
  • Safe and stable housing during inpatient/residential treatment.
  • Life skills training.
  • Education.
  • Relapse prevention training.
  • Referrals and resources to other supportive services such as vocational training, housing, and legal help.

Substance use disorder treatment is a comprehensive process, and the services you receive are unique to you and your needs. Upon entering treatment, you will work with healthcare professionals to create a treatment plan that can include different types of addiction treatment, such as:7

If you are expecting, we understand that checking into a residential treatment program may not be a feasible option for you at this time. However, that does not mean that you can’t obtain life-saving care. Our parent company, American Addiction Centers, offers outpatient treatment options in many of our locations throughout the country. We also encourage considering a sober living program for your recovery, which can be a helpful and necessary support for you as you work on sobriety while maintaining a healthy pregnancy. To find out which of our locations offers both of these programming options, please visit our facilities page.

Choosing a Rehab for Pregnant Women

If you are struggling with addiction and pregnancy, you are not alone, and effective, non-judgmental resources and treatment options are available to you. By calling Sunrise House Treatment Center at , you can speak to a compassionate admissions navigator who can help you learn about the treatment admissions process and answer your questions about ways to pay for rehab, including information about paying for rehab with health insurance. Don’t wait any longer. Get the help you need and deserve today.

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