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Addiction in Pregnant Women – Statistics, Risks and Help

The hurdles are considerably higher when a woman is pregnant and battling a substance addiction. With two lives affected, there are many challenges ahead for both mother and child.

“Using drugs, alcohol, or tobacco during pregnancy exposes not just the woman but also her developing fetus to the substance and can have potentially deleterious and even long-term effects on exposed children,” says the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

It is generally advised that pregnant women refrain from drug and alcohol use while pregnant. Substance use only increases the risks that already come with pregnancy and the results can be life-altering for the baby while in the mother’s womb and after he or she is born.

Despite the advice to abstain from substance use, there are pregnant women who use alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs or other substances that can harm an unborn baby. The reasons for use vary, but using a substance can happen after a woman has experienced emotional highs and lows or when she is not able to process her thoughts and feelings rationally. For other mothers, not knowing when to stop using may be the problem.

How Maternity Addiction Affects Mother, Child

Maternity addiction can bring a host of problems. Everything the expectant mother eats will come into contact with the child as it passes through the placenta, which is where the baby receives oxygen, food, and vital nutrients for proper development. Women who abuse drugs often have poor health and eating habits that accompany their drug use. These lifestyle habits also play a role in the baby’s health.

Addictive substances used during this fragile time increases complications such as:

  • Placenta problems
  • Deep vein thrombosis (when blood clots form deep in a vein in the lower leg, thigh, pelvis, or arm)
  • Antepartum hemorrhage (bleeding from the birth canal before the baby is born)

Substance use in pregnancy can also cause miscarriage, when a woman unexpectedly loses the baby, or cause her to deliver the baby preterm, which happens before 37 weeks of pregnancy.  Some of the effects of maternal addiction can expose a baby to conditions that will impact the child long after arrival into the world.

Expectant mothers who use opiates, marijuana, and cocaine while pregnant could have infants who are drowsy, anxious, or jittery and irritable. Newborns can experience severe withdrawal symptoms within 24 to 72 hours after they are born. This is because their brains and nervous systems are adjusting to the absence of chemicals during this period.

The ever-growing list of harmful or potentially harmful substances includes prescription medications and medicines bought over-the-counter at a pharmacy or retail store. According to the Merck Manual, “more than 50 percent of pregnant women take prescription or nonprescription (over-the-counter) drugs or use social drugs (such as tobacco and alcohol) or illicit drugs at some time during pregnancy, and use of drugs during pregnancy is increasing.”

All of these can affect an unborn fetus, so be sure to check first with a trusted health professional or licensed medical specialist who can offer guidance.

Here is an overview of why substance use during pregnancy is dangerous.

pregnant women with a glass of wine


Alcohol, considered to be the nation’s top drug threat due to its accessibility, can negatively affect one’s pregnancy and unborn child. Exposure to legal substance happens more often than realized. More than 3.3 million women are at risk of exposing their developing baby to alcohol, reports the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This includes women who drink but are not yet aware that they are pregnant.

As the CDC reports, it is possible for women to not know they have conceived until they are at least four weeks to six weeks into their pregnancy. This, unfortunately, means the developing baby has been exposed to harmful and toxic chemicals for at least a month. The longer pregnant moms remain unaware, the greater the risks are to their unborn child. As the CDC notes, “The baby’s brain, body, and organs are developing throughout pregnancy and can be affected by alcohol at any time.”

Exposing an unborn child to alcohol can cause fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). The CDC says these disorders are “physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities that last a lifetime.”

Physical issues of FASDs include:

  • Low birth weight (when a baby weighs less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces)
  • Organ problems (heart, kidney, others)
  • Damage to parts of the brain

Behavioral issues of FASDs include:

  • Concentration difficulties
  • Learning disabilities
  • Hyperactivity
  • Inability to communicate in social situations

Street Drugs

Cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, methamphetamine (or other designer or club drugs), and marijuana put an unborn child’s health at risk as well as that of the woman who is pregnant.  Polysubstance use, when more than one drug is used, can make it harder to determine exactly how each substance abuse will affect a child. For example, using alcohol and drugs together, whether legal or illegal, can put mom and her baby on an uncertain path that leads to an uncertain or unfavorable future. Research is ongoing for some drugs, such as ecstasy, so their effects on pregnant moms and their unborn aren’t known. If you are pregnant and using addictive substances, consider getting help at a professional treatment center.


Pregnant women are highly advised to avoid smoking. As with other substances, smoking can cause the same complications for the placenta problems.

Babies affected by smoking can be born prematurely and have low birthweight and birth defects, such as a cleft lip or cleft palate. Affected babies may also have a longer hospital stay or end up dying. Electronic cigarettes should be avoided as well. The CDC advises against using these devices with products that contain nicotine, as the chemical that can impair the baby’s brain and lungs. E-cigarette flavorings should also be off limits as they could pose a risk to babies who are developing.

Drug use during pregnancy or smoking and/or drinking while pregnant raises the risk and can bring on the following conditions:

  • Infant mortality
  • Low birth weight
  • Stillbirth (when a baby dies in the womb before 20 weeks of pregnancy)
  • SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome)
  • Preterm birth
  • Respiratory difficulties
  • Delayed fetal growth

In later life, babies born to addicted mothers can have:

  • Learning challenges
  • Attention, focus problems
  • Behavior problems
  • Physical disabilities
  • Physical growth that is slower than normal or average

Addiction Treatment for Pregnant Women

The numbers of women with maternity addiction who seek treatment are low. This population continues to be underrepresented because of the barriers they face when seeking treatment, according to data available. These obstacles include not having health insurance to not being able to find proper transportation or childcare. In many cases, women who have addiction may avoid treatment out of fear of being judged or treated differently during the prenatal process. It is still advised that women in maternity addiction still reach out for help from a reputable facility that offers services that can assist them.

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Help for Pregnant Women Who Need Addiction Treatment

It is advised that pregnant women who are experiencing substance use in pregnancy seek help from a treatment center. Comprehensive treatment that offers options for long-term residential or outpatient programs can be effective and help the mother and baby. Before choosing a center, ensure that its staff is knowledgeable and understands the unique needs of maternity addiction.

Gender-specific treatment programs for pregnant women in addiction recovery may be a better fit because they offer services that meet the unique needs that accompany pregnancy, such as breastfeeding support and nutritional guidance. Women in these programs also may gain an understanding of the physical changes that accompany pregnancy, such as swollen ankles, nausea, and discomfort while sleeping, among other conditions.

Treatment programs of this kind also offer support for the woman in that they address challenges that are unique to women, such as social and cultural roles, such as being the caregiver in her family.

Overall, centers that offer holistic health programs for the pregnant mother and her baby are effective. Courses on prenatal care, postnatal care, parenting and early childhood development are helpful. Programs should also prepare new mothers with tools as they continue their journey toward sobriety while making the transition to becoming a mother.

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