Pregnancy & Addiction: What You Should Know

What pregnant women struggling with addiction need to know for their health and safety, as well as the unborn child's health and safety.


While pregnancy can be exciting for a lot of women as well as their partners, an unplanned pregnancy while addicted to drugs or alcohol could be terrifying. Addiction is a complex disease, and pregnancy yields more complexities. Numerous factors affect the health of the mother and baby during pregnancy.

Substance abuse is well-known to be harmful to the unborn child. That said, being pregnant while struggling with addiction can also create specific dangers for the mother. For example, mothers who use substances during pregnancy may be at an increased risk of pregnancy-related death.

Facts About Pregnancy and Addiction

The number of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) is on the rise in the United States because drug use during pregnancy is an increasing problem. Opioid use disorder alone has increased by 127% among pregnant women. In spite of the risks, women who are pregnant and addicted can have difficulties abstaining from drugs or alcohol. In some cases, abruptly stopping can cause severe withdrawal symptoms for the mother. Neonatal death, as a result, is not uncommon.

Some pregnant women may be using substances to self-medicate. Studies have shown that as many as 73% of pregnant women who sought treatment had experienced physical abuse in the past; another 71% had undergone emotional abuse; and 45% had sustained sexual abuse. These forms of past abuse can be linked to co-occurring disorders for a pregnant woman, such as PTSD or anxiety and depression. Co-occurring disorders can make it even harder for the pregnant female to stop using substances without formal treatment.

Prenatal Drug Abuse Symptoms

Many complications specifically pertaining to the baby’s health can result from substance abuse during pregnancy — such as birth defects, miscarriage and stillbirth. However, each type of substance can come along with inherent risks for the child:

  • Marijuana: Withdrawal symptoms after delivery, preterm labor, lowered birth weight, stillbirth, and developmental or behavioral problems
  • Tobacco: Low birth weight, heightened risks of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), learning or behavior issues, and future addiction
  • Cocaine: Small head circumference, low birth weight, stillbirth and miscarriage
  • Opioids: Increased risk of SIDS, placental abruption, stillbirth and NAS
  • Alcohol: Late-term miscarriage, fetal alcohol syndrome, neurodevelopmental disorders and birth defects
  • Stimulants: Miscarriage, stillbirth, placental abruption, brain defects or abnormalities, and heart defects 

Finding Help With Addiction Treatment Options for Pregnant Women

Pregnant women should be well-supported through numerous programs if they are addicted. A specifically designed treatment program for mothers-to-be can help a woman stop using substances in a way that is safest for her and the baby. Treatment options for addicted pregnant women should involve:

  • Medically supervised detox services
  • Therapy, counseling and meetings with peer-support groups
  • Pharmacological addiction support with pregnancy-approved medications
  • Parenting classes or vocational services to enhance life skills
  • Obstetric and pediatric care with providers that have knowledge of the unique situation
  • Help for relapse prevention and sustained sobriety

Even though addiction during pregnancy can cause highly unique risks, treatment programs designed to suit the purpose can be lacking. One organization found that only 19 states had alcohol or drug treatment programs that were specifically designed to aid women who were pregnant. Further, many women avoid seeking treatment while pregnant for fear of losing their child or facing legal challenges.

Addiction treatment facilities for expecting mothers specifically offer a strong foundation for recovery by delivering all levels of care and therapy the mother may need. Women have an opportunity to stop using — but also to develop life skills, get encouragement from peers and counselors, and experience supportive care throughout the pregnancy and beyond. For example, a residential treatment program allows the mother to receive everything from obstetric care and prenatal care to nutritional services and a structured sleep schedule.

Final Notes on Pregnancy and Addiction

All women can face emotional and physical challenges during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum. Thus, every woman deserves the best physical and emotional support. When you add addiction to the situation, the needs of the mother and child can be amplified. A comprehensive care plan with a professional team can be most beneficial for mom and baby.

If you are pregnant and addicted — or know someone who is — reaching out to a qualified professional for advice is the first step to a safer pregnancy, a healthier baby, and a mother with a new lease on a sober life. For further information on this pressing topic, we encourage you to read the accompanying resource: Pregnancy & Addiction


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. 

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