This infographic was created by Transformations by the Gulf, a cocaine rehab program
Every year, about four million babies are born in the United States. Every new life is a cause for celebration, and the women who experience the journey from conception to motherhood can have one of the most joy-filled experiences imaginable. However, when an expecting mother is in the throes of addiction, the concerns for the safety of herself and her baby can be overwhelming.
Substance abuse during pregnancy can bring about so many dangers for the unborn baby, so many risks for the pregnant mother, and so many fears for everyone involved. Here is a closer look at pregnancy and addiction, the specific risks involved, and how an expecting mother can find the help she needs for the safety of herself and her child.
Pregnancy While Addicted: A Growing Concern in Modern Society
Even though the issue is not always acknowledged, pregnancy while addicted has increasingly grown as a societal problem. Of the four million babies born annually, many are born addicted to substances. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that a baby is born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) every 19 minutes in this country. In a study published in 2012, as many as nine percent of women surveyed used illegal drugs during pregnancy, and five percent used alcohol. The magnitude of the issue is further substantiated by the fact that the number of babies born addicted to drugs has quadrupled since 2004.
Effects of Substance Abuse on the Baby During Pregnancy
When a pregnant woman uses alcohol or drugs—marijuana, opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, etcetera—some of those substances can be transferred to the baby. And, some substances are naturally more dangerous for the fetus than others. Just the same, however, any level of substance use during pregnancy should be avoided. With some substances, even one use could have dangerous risks for the child.
The exact effects on the baby when the pregnant mother uses a substance vary depending on a number of factors. At what point in the pregnancy a substance is used, what substance is used, and how often a substance is used can all generate different risks. Some of the most common effects on the baby if the mother uses substances during pregnancy include:
- Premature birth
- Low birth weight
- Small head size
- Heightened risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
- Developmental defects
- Heightened risks of miscarriage or stillbirth
Specific health issues can also stem from using alcohol or drugs during pregnancy. Primarily, babies are usually born with NAS, which can come along with a range of withdrawal symptoms for the baby soon after its birth. The intensity and specifics of the withdrawal symptoms vary depending on the substance and how much or how often the mother used. Babies born to mothers who used substances during pregnancy can also have a heightened risk of heart defects, infections, and other health problems.
With alcohol use during pregnancy, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) are also common. FADs can be associated with long-term developmental and cognitive problems. In fact, a mother using alcohol while pregnant is touted as the leading preventable cause of developmental disabilities, birth defects, and even learning disabilities in the U.S.
Babies exposed to crack cocaine during pregnancy often have later-onset issues, such as subtle but significant cognitive delays and problems with attention. But, these babies are also at risk of stroke in the womb, which can cause significant brain damage before the baby is born. Methamphetamine use during pregnancy can have similar consequences as cocaine use, and a meth-exposed baby can face feeding difficulties and be especially irritable.
The Risks Pregnant Women Face Due to Addiction
While risks to the baby are understandably a top concern with an addicted mother, the mother also faces her own unique risks. Pregnancy brings about a lot of physical and emotional changes, but drugs or alcohol on top of those changes can heighten threats to the mother’s well-being. For example, pregnant women can be more prone to emotional disruptions; about seven percent actually experience depression during pregnancy. Having a substance abuse problem can exacerbate those feelings. Women using some substances may also be more likely to experience problems such as:
- High blood pressure
- Placental abruption leading to hemorrhage
- Infections or infectious diseases
In addition, women with a substance abuse problem during pregnancy may be apprehensive about seeking appropriate prenatal care for fear of judgment, losing their child after birth, or legal ramifications. Not getting adequate prenatal care is dangerous for the baby, but can be nearly as dangerous to the mother.
How an Expecting Mother Can Find Help for Addiction
For a pregnant woman looking for help for a substance abuse problem, finding the right place is important. Not all treatment facilities are equipped to handle the unique circumstances. Some research suggests that only 22.4 percent of treatment facilities cater to women who are either pregnant or have just given birth. The best addiction treatment programs for pregnant women will offer:
- Well-trained staff members and medical professionals with a history of treating pregnant women
- Pregnancy and parenting education opportunities
- Access to housing for a residential program when needed
- An ability to treat specific coexisting mental health issues, such as PTSD or anxiety
- Flexible treatment options to meet the needs of the mother
- An individualized treatment plan for the mother during and after her pregnancy
- Therapeutic methodologies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational interviewing
Outpatient treatment with medication assistance is also something to consider. Methadone and buprenorphine treatment are both viable options for pregnant women, even though these treatments are not currently FDA-approved for pregnant women. Even though both of these drugs can be passed to the baby, when treatment is closely monitored, issues after birth can be anticipated and adequately handled. With methadone treatment during pregnancy, for example, most babies are born generally healthy in spite of potentially having some acute withdrawal symptoms. On the contrary, a baby born to a mother who used opioids during pregnancy may have a list of issues, and the severity can range depending on a number of factors.
A Final Note for Pregnant Women with Substance Abuse Problems
Taking the first steps to get treatment for addiction while pregnant can be intimidating. However, having a healthier baby will justify the discomfort that comes along with initially letting someone know you need help. With a growing number of women dealing with addiction, substance abuse during pregnancy is an issue care providers must now acknowledge. Many obstetrics physicians now work hand in hand with substance abuse professionals to create comprehensive care plans for patients who need help. Remember, no celebration is greater than one for a new life. And, getting the help you need can mean new life for both yourself and your baby.
Author bio: Tammy Cate is the founder and CEO of Transformations By The Gulf, a leading drug rehab facility. Cate is passionate about helping others lead a sober and fulfilling life. She maintains a hands-on rapport with staff and residents to ensure everyone is able to receive an individualized experience.