Relationship Between Pregnancy, Addiction, and Treatment
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Pregnancy, Addiction, and Treatment

When you are pregnant, you and your baby are intimately connected. You feel each kick, turn, and sigh your baby makes. And your baby feels every substance you put into your body.

That includes drugs and alcohol.

You may think a shot of alcohol or a hit of heroin is yours alone. But those substances can pass through the placenta from you to your growing baby. The consequences can be devastating.

You can make it better.

Don’t wait for your due date to address your addiction. Treatment programs help you gain control now, so you can protect your baby and build a life in which your child can thrive.

How Often Do Pregnant Women Use Drugs?

Few women set out to intentionally harm their babies, but many women do take drugs while they’re pregnant. And one type of drug that’s especially harmful to babies is showing up in the bodies of many childbearing women.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says about 5 percent of women use substances while pregnant. That includes:

  • Marijuana
  • Stimulants
  • Heroin
  • Ecstasy
  • Prescription drugs
  • Alcohol
  • Nicotine

Some women were addicted before they got pregnant, and they used substances long before they knew they were caring for a baby. Others develop the habit due to the difficulties of pregnancy. Their aching feet, sore bladders, and pulsing headaches seemed to feel better with a little punch of a substance. Soon, that use became compulsive.

All across the globe, we’re seeing a rising wave of opioid abuse. Drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin started the problem, and users transitioned from pills to stronger stuff like heroin. Now, users are buying heroin tainted by an even stronger opioid, and many are losing their lives.

Babies are not immune to this phenomenon.

Babies exposed to opioids during gestation can develop physical dependence. When they’re born, and the supply of the drug is cut off, they experience withdrawal. NIDA says the number of infants born with this problem has increased fivefold since 2004.

Now, a baby with opioid withdrawal is born every 15 minutes. 

It’s clear that far too many women expose their unborn children to drugs. The next set of statistics we’ll share with you showcase just how dangerous the combination of drugs and pregnancy can be.

woman hunched over using drugs

What Are the Consequences?

As we mentioned, most addictive drugs can move through the placenta. They may originate in the woman’s body, but they soon pass to the body developing within the womb. Developing babies are fragile, and exposing them to drugs can spell disaster.

Babies exposed to drugs in utero can experience:

  • Stillbirth. Some drugs damage critical organs, such as the heart and lungs. When a baby’s body is harmed beyond repair, it can die within the womb. NIDA says using tobacco, marijuana, painkillers, or illegal drugs doubles or triples the risk of stillbirth.
  • Withdrawal. Opioid drugs spark changes in a baby’s brain, and when that happens, the child might need the drug to feel healthy. Babies born with withdrawal can cry, shake, shiver, and vomit without replacement medications and critical care.
  • Birth defects. Many substances alter the way a baby grows within the womb. Some can change the shape and size of the head. Others can change the way the hands and feet look.
  • Low birth weight. Large babies have fat stores to lean on after birth. Thin kids don’t, and that puts them at risk for all sorts of health problems. Some tiny babies must begin their lives in intensive care units, surrounded by machines. They can’t survive on their own.

It’s hard to describe the guilt a mother feels when her baby is born with health problems or doesn’t survive at all. Hormones make those feelings of loss more acute, and for some women, this sparks a mental health crisis.

Some states have strict legislation that penalizes a mom for her baby’s drug exposure. If you’re tested for drugs during your pregnancy, and that test comes up positive, your doctor might be forced to report you. When the authorities investigate, they can take your child from you.

Organizations like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists oppose these programs. They say putting you in prison makes your baby’s life worse, not better.

But the appetite for protecting babies — even at the expense of their mothers — is strong in some states. If you live in a place like this, your choice to use drugs could be a criminal one.

hand helping hand

Addiction Treatment During Pregnancy

You’ve used drugs while pregnant. You know you should stop, but you can’t seem to manage it. Are you doomed to keep using, even if it hurts your baby? Absolutely not.

Treatment programs can help you gain control over your drug use. And you’ll need the help of a program to keep protecting your baby.

It’s not uncommon for pregnant women to ask for help. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, about 5 percent of all people who enroll in treatment programs are pregnant.

Detox is the first stage of treatment, and it’s here that women often need help. Drugs like heroin and Vicodin can change the way your brain and body works. Just as your baby can go into withdrawal after birth, if you quit cold turkey, you can cause the same set of problems. According to the March of Dimes, a cold-turkey quit during pregnancy can kill your baby.

Your doctor can use medications to:

  • Ease symptoms. Drugs like buprenorphine can mimic the action of opioids without the high. Your body won’t develop flu-like symptoms, and neither will your baby’s.
  • Address your cravings. Your drug habit won’t go away on its own. Without help, you’re susceptible to temptation. Medications trick your body into thinking it has access to drugs. You’ll be less likely to relapse.
  • Start the weaning process. You’ll take a smaller dose every day until you’re not taking any.
  • Help your body heal. Smaller doses let your brain make new connections.

Even if you’re not taking opioids, you might still need detox help. Alcohol, cocaine, and other substances can also spark illness and cravings. Monitoring and medication management can help you.

When you’re sober, you can develop:

  • Relapse prevention skills. What creates cravings? What should you do when they appear? You’ll get the answers in therapy.
  • Strong support systems. Raising a baby is hard work. So is kicking an addiction. You’ll need people who understand. You’ll get family-focused therapy, but you’ll also meet others in recovery through support groups.
  • Self-soothing techniques. How can you calm a busy mind or boost a low mood without leaning on substances? You’ll get exposed to yoga, art therapy, and more.
  • Forgiveness. The choices you made in the past can’t be changed. People who hurt you can’t be punished. You’ll learn to process trauma and move on.

Why Does Treatment Matter?

It’s tempting to think of addiction as the absence of sobriety. If you could just kick the drugs one time, you’d be set for life.

Unfortunately, addictions stem from causes that have nothing to do with substance abuse. And you’ll need to deal with all of those problems to really protect your baby.

For example, in a study published in the journal Drugs: Education, Prevention, and Policy, researchers followed women who abused substances during pregnancy. During the course of the five-year study, 88 percent of women still showed mental health problems, and 85 percent of kids were placed in foster homes at some point.

To truly heal, you’ll need to address the trauma of your past, and you’ll need help to build a life with no room in it for drugs. That’s what a treatment program can do.

This is more than just addressing sobriety. It’s about changing your life for the better. This is the kind of program you — and your child — need.


Substance Use While Pregnant and Breastfeeding. (July 2018). National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Dramatic Increases in Maternal Opioid Use and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. (January 2019). National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Substance Use During Pregnancy. (May 2016). F1000 Research.

Substance Abuse Reporting and Pregnancy: The Role of the Obstetrician-Gynecologist. (January 2011). American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Pregnancy and Substance Abuse. (May 2019). U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Trends in Substances of Abuse Among Pregnant Women and Women of Childbearing Age in Treatment. (July 2013). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Street Drugs and Pregnancy. (November 2016). March of Dimes.

Substance Abuse During Pregnancy: A 5-Year Followup of Mothers and Children. (February 2018). Drugs: Education, Prevention, and Policy.

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