Addiction and Pregnancy: Know the Risks

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Pregnancy Test | Addiction | The Hills

Addiction and pregnancy don’t go hand in hand. Far from it. They’re as opposed as two concepts can possibly be. Even so, as we’ll see, the sad reality is that some women go into pregnancy while struggling with a drug addiction. Abusing any substance while pregnant can have serious ramifications for the unborn child.

In this post, we’ll explore these possible complications and go into depth on six drugs that cause them.

But if you’re pregnant and you suspect you might struggle with substance abuse disorder, don’t wait. Get help now.

Addiction & Pregnancy

Substance abuse disorder during pregnancy is common. Nicotine is by far the most widely used substance, with alcohol coming in second, marijuana third and cocaine a distant fourth. However, in recent years, opioid use during pregnancy has become more common than it once was. All opioids are extremely addictive.

Substance abuse disorder, or addiction, is defined as the compulsive use of a substance despite negative consequences. Someone struggling with addiction will continue to use even though their use has negative consequences on their personal or professional life. As they develop tolerance for a substance, obtaining and using that substance becomes more and more important to them. Their drug of choice becomes the priority. As you might expect, this means that other aspects of life become less important.

However, when addiction is present during pregnancy, it represents a significant health risk to both the parent and the unborn child. For instance, according to the Center for Disease Control—CDC—between .2 and 1.5 infants per 1,000 born have fetal alcohol syndrome.

Of those surveyed by the CDC, ten percent of women reported tobacco use during pregnancy, particularly in the final three months. Opioid use during pregnancy increased from 1.5 to 6.5 per 1,000 births. This between the years 1999 and 2014. This increase in opioid use corresponds to a drastic increase in infants diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome.

Drugs and Alcohol Don’t Just Hurt You

While pregnant, everything you put into your body goes into your baby’s body. The placenta provides an intimate connection between you and your growing baby, but it can’t filter any harmful substances you may consume. Alcohol, tobacco and other substances can be transferred to the baby through the placenta. As we’ll see, drugs and alcohol can have terrible effects on a child. This includes street drugs, prescription medications, sedatives, and uppers.

Your baby’s heart begins to develop at six weeks, and all drugs can affect the development of that heart. The following drugs can cause growth defects and brain damage. Brain damage at this stage of development can lead to lifelong learning and behavioral issues.

  • Heroin
  • Ecstasy
  • Cocaine
  • Meth
  • Speed
  • Marijuana
  • Uppers
  • Downers

Street drugs, which vary widely in potency from seller to seller, can cause stillbirth or miscarriage, and can even cause overdose, resulting in the death of the mother and the unborn child.

Finally, exposing an unborn child to drugs can cause them to experience withdrawal symptoms after birth. Symptoms of withdrawal in infants include:

  • Irritability
  • Diarrhea
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting
  • Trembling
  • Fever

If you’ve recently found out you’re pregnant and are struggling with addiction, there are in-patient rehabilitation facilities that can help you avoid use or relapse.

Addiction is a chronic disease that is considered progressive if you don’t seek treatment. Over time, if left untreated, addiction becomes harder and harder to manage. While it’s possible to get clean on your own sometimes, relapse will generally become more common as you age. Like any disease, addiction presents serious risks to both mother and unborn child, as highlighted above.

However, it’s important to note that co-occurring mental health disorders can compound these effects, which makes it even more important to seek professional help in an accredited rehabilitation facility.

Eating disorders, depression and other co-occurring mental disorders present unique challenges that the professionals at a quality rehabilitation center are trained to deal with. Trying to cope with addiction and mental illness on your own while pregnant can lead to devastating results.

If you’re pregnant or are planning to become pregnant and cannot quit using alcohol or other drugs, you should seek treatment immediately.

Pregnancy Always Carries Some Risk

Pregnant women often make several lifestyle changes to maximize the odds of a healthy pregnancy. This can include avoiding certain foods, beverages and other activities that may do harm to themselves or the unborn child. They may also take prenatal supplements and exercise regularly. Even at the best of times, even while taking every imaginable precautionary measure, success is not guaranteed.

But any addiction during pregnancy drastically amplifies the chance of complications for both mother and child.

In this section, we’ll explore several potential drug-related complications.

Stillbirth & Miscarriage

A miscarriage is defined as the death of a prenatal child before the 24th week. 10-15 percent of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, regardless of drug use. In fact, miscarriage can be caused by a wide range of health issues, ranging from infection, disease, chromosome abnormalities, eating disorders, and, of course, drug abuse.

Stillbirth, on the other hand, occurs when a baby is born with no sign of life after the 24th week. Recall that the placenta provides a lifeline between mother and unborn child. Stillbirth is most frequently caused by abnormalities in the placenta that prevent the baby from developing properly. However, smoking, alcohol consumption and drug use can cause stillbirth too.

Premature Labor

If an infant is born before week 37, he or she is considered premature. In the absence of drug or alcohol abuse, premature birth is typically caused by complications from pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or kidney disease. As you might have guessed, it can also be caused by drug addiction. Any number of compounds that pass through the placenta to the child can lead to early labor.

Premature birth carries its own risks, including:

  • Predisposition to chronic health issues
  • Feeding problems
  • Infection
  • Asthma
  • Increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome—SIDS

Placenta Abruption

When the placenta separates from the uterine wall before labor—placenta abruption—the result can be developmental issues for the child later in life. This can occur as the result of a fall, auto accident or direct trauma to the midsection, but it is most commonly brought on by alcohol, tobacco or drug use during pregnancy.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

This is a blanket term for a number of complications that can occur when an expectant mother is addicted to opioids. Sadly, opioids are capable of passing through the placenta into the developing child’s brain. This causes the brain to become dependent on opioids. When the baby doesn’t receive the opioids after birth, they experience withdrawal symptoms as mentioned in the previous section.

In 2012, over 21,000 newborns were diagnosed with NAS.

NAS can also cause low birth weight and overall small body size. NAS infants may require a step-down regimen using Opioid Maintenance Medication or some other weak opioid.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

As you might guess from the heading, this one is directly tied to alcohol consumption. More specifically, it’s an umbrella term, or catchall, for a group of disorders that can result from moderate to heavy alcohol use at any time during pregnancy.

When a pregnant woman drinks any amount of alcohol, some of that alcohol travels from the mother into the fetus via the umbilical cord. Therefore, there is no safe amount of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

Low Birth Weight

Around eight percent of babies are born with low weight. Low weight is considered to be a birth weight of less than five pounds and eight ounces. Some low weight babies struggle with breathing issues, heart problems and intestinal issues. Abusing drugs during pregnancy increases the odds that your baby will be born at a low weight.

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

This is the abrupt death of a supposedly healthy infant or child. Generally, the moniker applies only to children less than one year old. Mothers who abuse drugs during pregnancy go through SIDs at higher rates than do other mothers.

Small Head Circumference

Abusing drugs during pregnancy can result in microcephaly. This is a condition in which the brain does not develop properly, which means the skull doesn’t grow as it should either.

Behavioral Problems

As mentioned, abusing  drugs while pregnant can predispose a child to behavioral challenges throughout life. Because drugs change the way the reward pathway in the brain works, and because some drugs, such as opioids, cross through the placenta, they can interfere with your child’s brain development. What’s more, alcohol and other drugs you take during pregnancy can interfere with the development of your child’s central nervous system.

These changes, both to the brain and body, can manifest later in life as impulse control issues, aggression or attention deficit.

A Closer Look at Specific Drugs

In this section, we’ll look at each of the most common drugs in turn, breaking down how they can interfere with your pregnancy.

#1 Alcohol

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders cannot be cured. However, spotting the disorder early can allow interventions that can minimize its effects. Exposing your unborn child to alcohol can:

  • Cause alcohol-related birth defects
  • Cause alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder.
  • Cause fetal death

Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder can cause behavioral issues, learning disabilities and problems with judgment, impulse control and focus.

#2 Tobacco

Nicotine passes through the placenta without issue, entering the unborn child’s body. Once there, it accumulates since the baby doesn’t yet have the capability to process it. This build up, if it becomes high enough, can cause fetal death.

Carbon monoxide, which builds up in the blood of a smoker, should not be present in the blood in high concentrations. Consequently, it can have a negative impact on fetal development too. Carbon monoxide and nicotine buildup during pregnancy can also lead to:

  • Low birth weight
  • Development issues, such as learning problems
  • Stunted growth
  • Increased risk of addiction later in life
  • SIDS

#3 Marijuana

Because marijuana has been legalized for recreational use in some states, many people think of it as safe. Irrespective of whether it’s safe to use in general, its use while pregnant is ill advised. THC, the main active ingredient in marijuana, passes through the placenta.

However, because people who use marijuana often use other drugs, it’s hard for researchers to determine exactly what effects marijuana has. Possible effects include:

  • Premature birth
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Low birth weight
  • Stillbirth
  • Developmental problems

#4 Cocaine

Cocaine is a very strong stimulant. As such, it can cause the uterus to contract. This can, in turn, result in blood loss, premature labor and low birth weight. Moreover, babies born to women addicted to cocaine or crack suffer potentially devastating developmental side effects. This can include:

  • Small head circumference
  • Placental abruption
  • Development & behavioral problems
  • Miscarriage

#5 Opioids

Opioids have taken over as the main problem drug, and for good reason. Addiction to opioids often starts with a prescription for a strong narcotic pain reliever, such as Opioid Pain Medication.

Opioid abuse during pregnancy can have side effects, including:

  • Placental abruption
  • Stillbirth
  • SIDS
  • NAS
  • Low birth weight

#6 Meth & Other Amphetamines

Like cocaine, meth is a stimulant. However, research on the effects of meth abuse during pregnancy is somewhat scarce. The available data does suggest, however, that both mother and child suffer if meth and other stimulants are abused during pregnancy.

Possible side effects for the child include:

  • Low birth weight
  • Premature birth
  • Miscarriage
  • Heart defects
  • Brain abnormalities
  • Placental abruption
  • Behavioral problems

Pregnancy Therapist | Addiction | The HillsWhen to Seek Help

If you’re an expectant mother and you think you might have a substance abuse disorder, don’t wait. Seek help now. An accredited, in-patient rehabilitation center is one of the best ways to ensure that your baby doesn’t come into contact with chemical substances that will interfere with their brain and body development.

The best thing you can do for your child is to stop using alcohol now, in any quantity. There is no minimum safe dose. The sooner you stop, the better your child’s outcome will be. Naturally, the same goes for pretty much any other drug you can think of. Remember that the placenta is there to provide oxygen and nutrients for your unborn child.

However, it does not filter harmful compounds that you ingest.

Every puff of smoke, sip of alcohol or hit of a drug will pass through, interfering with your child’s development.

The bottom line: if in doubt, seek treatment now. The sooner you seek treatment, the sooner you can get a hold on your addiction. This will yield benefits beyond pregnancy as you’ll be able to provide your child with the loving care they deserve.

If you’re trying to get addiction treatment for yourself or for someone you love at any stage of a pregnancy, reach out to The Hills for comprehensive and caring treatment that will help patients detox and learn the skills to cope with their triggers and their addiction. You have options, let The Hills be one of them.


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