Home Health & Wellness What You Should Know About Pregnancy and Addiction

What You Should Know About Pregnancy and Addiction

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Many people across the globe struggle with addiction. When a woman is pregnant, the substances she abuses are not only dangerous for her health, but the health of her baby as well. In the US alone, an estimated 5% of women use one or more addictive substances during pregnancy. 

Understanding substance abuse and the impacts it can have on pregnancy is crucial. Here are some of the possible complications, as well as recovery options for pregnant women with substance dependency issues.

The dangers of substance abuse during pregnancy

The potential complications for the expectant mother and baby depend on the substance she is using, the frequency of use and the amount. Tobacco is the most commonly abused substance during pregnancy, followed by alcohol, cannabis and other illicit drugs. Prescription drug abuse is also a rising concern, since, like oxygen and nutrients taken in by the mother, the chemicals inside these pills are passed to the unborn child.

All of these substances can have serious health consequences for the developing fetus. A few commonly occurring prenatal effects of alcohol and drug use include birth defects, developmental problems, preterm labor, low birth weight and miscarriage. Women who abuse alcohol during pregnancy put their baby at risk for several alcohol-specific disorders that fall within the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum. These conditions are characterized by serious mental and physical residual health consequences and cannot be cured.

In addition to these prenatal effects, babies can be born with an addiction to the drug their mother was taking. When this happens, the child must undergo medically assisted detoxification and eventual withdrawal. The effects of newborn drug addiction can be both short- and long-term as the child goes through drug withdrawal. Typical symptoms include: 

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Excessive crying
  • Poor sleep
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Trouble nursing
  • Failure to thrive

Recovery options

Seeking effective treatment is essential, since addiction puts both lives in danger. Rehabilitation programmes, whether inpatient or outpatient, are instrumental in supporting pregnant women on the road to recovery. What’s more, a comprehensive drug rehab program can reduce the risk of birth defects, miscarriage and preterm delivery by taking steps to protect both mom and baby’s health. They may offer childcare services, parenting classes, child healthcare and a continual support network as well in order to facilitate the recovery process. 

An important consideration in treatment selection is taking any co-occurring mental health conditions into account. Those with substance abuse problems often have an increased risk of mental health disorders, such as a panic disorder or depression. For new mothers in this situation, there is also an increased risk of postpartum depression. Addressing these co-occurring conditions takes specialized care generally found in a mental health treatment facility.

Getting help as early as possible is vital and begins with a care assessment. By meeting with a facility representative, important aspects of care can be gone over and any questions answered. The discussion will review pre-existing medical conditions, family history and current stressors, as well as delving into questions surrounding the substance(s) in use. Afterwards, a path to sobriety and proper pre- and post-natal care is determined to best support the health of the baby and mother-to-be. 

Treating addiction in pregnancy comes with many challenges. However, by seeking help early on through a rehabilitation program and other forms of medical support, the health outcomes for both lives may be improved. For further information on the risks of substance abuse during pregnancy, please see the accompanying resource.


Jake Posso is admissions director at Vanguard Behavioral Health. Jake is an Arizona native who has battled addiction a number of years ago, there-in he went to treatment himself.

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