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risks pregnancy and addiction

The Real Risk of Pregnancy and Addiction

Unfortunately, pregnancy and addiction are a combination that happens more often than most people think. With the rise of the opiate epidemic, cases of pregnancy and addiction are becoming more prevalent. Of course, it’s impossible to talk about this connection without discussing the health risk for moms-to-be and their babies.

Facts about Pregnancy and Addiction

While data for pregnancy and substance abuse is scarce, the latest results from the 2013 survey show shocking facts about the connection. Overall, these facts break down through different age groups and trimesters. 

  • Around 11.4% of non-pregnant females using illicit drugs were age 15-44.
  • Close to 5.4% of pregnant women, ages 14-44, were also active illicit drugs.
  • When it comes to drug abuse and trimesters, substance abuse was the lowest in the third trimester (2.4%), compared to the first trimester (9%), and the second trimester (4.8%).
  • Age is also a significant factor; pregnant women ages 15-17 were 14.6% more likely to use illicit drugs than 8.6% for the 18-25 group, and 3.2% for the 26-44 age group.

Risk of Pregnancy and Addiction

Even a single episode of drug use during pregnancy can have negative health consequences for both the mom and the developing fetus. Drug abuse also increases women’s risks of lifestyle-related risks, such as infectious diseases, domestic violence, criminal prosecution, and sexual assault. 

Some of the risks of substance abuse can cause:

  • Complications with pregnancy.
  • Interfering with the delivery of oxygen or vital nutrients through the placenta.
  • Harming the fetus directly by restricting growth.
  • Increasing the risk of spontaneous miscarriage, premature delivery, or fetal death.

Other serious risks include high rates of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), which causes infants to struggle with symptoms of addiction and withdrawal syndrome. In the United States, a baby is diagnosed with NAS every fifteen minutes. Symptoms of NAS include tremors, crying, sleep problems, dehydration, and even seizures.

But the risks of pregnancy and addiction aren’t just opiates, and the impacts of babies born addicted. Using drugs or alcohol during pregnancy can have long-term consequences for mothers and babies.

Effects of Drugs on the Mother and Baby

During pregnancy, any substance that’s carried through the mother’s blood, which can include alcohol, illegal drugs, and prescription medications, can affect the fetus. Substance abuse, in general, can change the fetus in many ways. The effects will vary depending on the type of drug abused.


Pregnant women struggling with alcohol abuse might suffer from a condition known as fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). The syndrome is characterized by various birth defects, including abnormal facial features, slowed fetal growth, and dysfunction in the central nervous system. Overall, this can cause behavioral disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other developmental issues. 


Approximately 3-16 percent of pregnant women use marijuana. While research is limited, marijuana use during pregnancy can cause weak fetal growth, increase the child’s risk of leukemia, and neurobehavioral problems. Other studies found that women who used marijuana while pregnant were 1.5 times more likely to have a child with autism and 2.3 times higher risk of stillbirth or unborn babies.


While rare, some women use drugs like cocaine, heroin, and other stimulants while pregnant. Cocaine use, for example, causes withdrawal symptoms among newborns that include tremors and seizures. Heroin can cause serious health complications, including placental abruption, premature labor, and fetal death. Amphetamines can lead to heart abnormalities in the fetus. At the same time, meth can cause restricted fetal growth, as well as problems with learning, memory, and judgment. 

Prescription Opioids

One of the most commonly abused drugs during pregnancy. Prescription opioids can increase the risk of congenital heart defects, cleft lip and palate, and risk of spina bifida. Infants born to opioid-addicted moms are also at high risk of experiencing opiate withdrawal after birth.

Substance Abuse Treatment Challenges

The impacts of pregnancy and addiction are devastating for babies and mothers. One example of this is the complications of treating opiate addiction in pregnant women. Sadly, the withdrawal symptoms from quitting opiates can cause miscarriage. As a result, pregnant women who want to recover have to take methadone or suboxone. These substances can also be addictive, making it difficult for the mother to switch to abstinence after giving birth.

They can also cause the baby to become dependent and experience withdrawal. A baby born with NAS may begin to exhibit withdrawal symptoms within the first three days to live, and the symptoms can last upwards of 2 weeks.

In addition to the physical impacts, the emotional and mental trauma of pregnancy and addiction can be severe. Babies treated for NAS, are removed from the mother. In many cases, social services then get involved, which further complicates the problem.

Mothers who have their babies removed often experience long-term grief, depression, anxiety, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Babies also experience adverse effects. Early contact with the mother is what helps babies’ brains develop, and when removed from their mother at birth, many babies suffer developmental issues. 

Medication-Assisted Treatments

Recent clinical studies are looking at various options to treat drug addiction among pregnant women. So far, the results indicate that buprenorphine (Suboxone) may be a safer and more effective option for women and their babies than methadone. Since it’s less habit-forming, researchers believe it is less likely to cause withdrawal symptoms. One research study concluded that:

  • Buprenorphine causes fewer symptoms of pirate withdrawal in newborns.
  • Buprenorphine does not need the basic clinical setting under direct medical supervision methadone requires.
  • The required doses of buprenorphine are often lower than methadone.
  • Children born to mothers who took buprenorphine required less intensive treatment after birth.

Detox While Pregnant

One of the most dangerous parts of drug addiction can often be the detox process. When pregnant women are detoxing from opiates, a “cold-turkey” approach comes with many complications and an increased risk of miscarriage.

Research suggests that undergoing a supervised medical detox to taper off the opioids during each trimester gradually is the best option. After detox, pregnant women might need to continue with a medication-assisted treatment as a method of abstinence maintenance. But of course, addiction treatment is the long-term solution to fight drug use while pregnant. 

Drug Addiction Treatment During Pregnancy

Unlike traditional addiction rehab programs, pregnant women need ancillary services that help with treatment and outcomes. A comprehensive and supportive approach to treatment that can help pregnant women and new moms battle their addiction must include:

  • Childcare arrangements during outpatient treatment or an inpatient stay.
  • Transportation arrangements to and from the rehab center. 
  • Information and education about the state’s laws on using drugs while pregnant.
  • Help with sober housing placement after rehab completion. 
  • Domestic violence counseling. 
  • Life skills development and how to improve self-worth.
  • Programming addressing the unique stressors and triggers women experience. 

Effective addiction treatment programs include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) – to actively and successfully look at the behaviors that trigger addiction.
  • Group therapy – to help women develop a supportive and sober network system.
  • Family therapy  – particularly helpful when there’s a history of addiction in the family.
  • Trauma therapy – Frequently, unresolved past traumas are the underlying cause of addiction, addressing these is paramount for recovery.
  • Aftercare rehab programs – to help recovering addicts continue their treatment and maintain sobriety well past their rehab discharge date.

Finding the Right Addiction Treatment

At Lighthouse Recovery Institute, we offer services geared towards helping pregnant women overcome barriers to treatment. Our specialty addiction programs are practical, caring, and thoughtful. Addiction treatment can provide women with a new start. During treatment, mothers have an opportunity to process trauma, learn practical parenting skills, and learn to live sober. Drug rehab is often the first step towards being able to be a sober, healthy parent.

It’s essential to find a rehab center that has experience accommodating this condition in addiction. Most of the time, pregnant women seek local treatment centers that allow them to have access to their family and their OB-GYN doctor. 

Making Healthy Changes

It’s never too late to start making healthy changes in your life. Even if you’re an active drug user while pregnant, you can improve your health. Addiction treatment is one of the first steps for a healthy life. If your or someone you know is struggling with a substance use disorder, don’t hesitate to reach out. 

 Call Lighthouse Recovery Institute today and speak with our addiction center specialists to learn more about our comprehensive and personalized addiction treatment programs.

Our philosophy revolves around treating each patient on a case-by-case scenario because we know no two addiction stories are alike. Start walking towards your recovery, and we’ll be here supporting you and your family every step of the way. Please don’t wait another day to start addiction treatment–your life depends on it. 

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