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Substance Abuse and Pregnancy: What Women Should Know

substance use treatment for pregnant women

Pregnancy has an inherent ability to motivate women towards healthier behavior: nutritious eating, adequate activity, and a halt in substance use. However, some women are battling substance addiction at the time of becoming pregnant. In these cases, it is very difficult to quit. Although most women are aware of the harmful effects of substance abuse in pregnancy, addiction is a disease. Addiction takes over our thinking and ability to make rational decisions—for ourselves and others.

Substance addiction, formerly known as a substance use disorder, changes the way that the brain functions. It disrupts our capacity to control impulses, think about long-term consequences, and feel pleasure. When drugs are not being used, the brain also experiences disturbing effects such as increased anxiety, irritability, and unease, along with painful withdrawal symptoms throughout the body. For this reason, a person with a substance use disorder will continue to use drugs to get temporary relief. This helps them avoid discomfort, both mentally and physically. 

So often, we shame pregnant women who use substances, without knowing the full story or the effects that addiction can have: How could she do this to her baby? She’s making bad choices. It is important we change our perspectives. Substance addiction is a disease, not a choice. No matter how much a woman may want to quit using drugs, it is not easy to do so on one’s own. Professional intervention is most often needed for women battling addiction during pregnancy. As Brian Barnett, MD, writes on The Fix:

“When I’m asked to evaluate a woman who is pregnant, I know her disease is severe before I’ve even laid eyes on her. If one needs proof that addiction is a disease and not a moral failing, look into the eyes of a woman who knows her behavior is harming her baby but still can’t stop. There is no better example of the ability of a chemical to overpower the deepest-rooted human instincts.”

If your loved one is using drugs while pregnant, or you just found out you are pregnant but are unsure how to quit, it is important to recognize the need for professional help. As Barnett implies above, substance abuse in pregnancy is one of the greatest indicators of a severe substance use disorder. It is also important to know that you are not alone. Help is available.

Below, we dive into the dangerous effects of drug use during pregnancy, as well as the consequences it can have on a baby and mother. Further, we offer tips for seeking treatment for pregnant women battling addiction.

How Common is Substance Abuse in Pregnancy?

If you are pregnant and drinking or using drugs, you are not alone. 

National data suggests that an estimated 10 percent of pregnant women, or 233,000 expectant mothers, drank alcohol in 2018. Approximately 128,000 (or over 5 percent of) pregnant women abused illicit drugs that same year. This is down significantly from the year prior. In 2017, an estimated 194,000 pregnant women abused illicit drugs, while 261,000 pregnant women drank alcohol that year.

Aside from alcohol, the most commonly abused drug among pregnant women today is marijuana, with an estimated 111,000 expectant mothers having used marijuana in 2018. Approximately 22,000 pregnant women in the United States abused opioid drugs, such as painkiller medications and heroin.

What are the Dangers of Substance Abuse in Pregnancy?

Using substances in pregnancy can lead to many adverse effects for both the baby and the mother. This is because any substance consumed is transferred to the baby, through the umbilical cord. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, drug use during pregnancy can negatively affect fetal growth and neurological development in an unborn baby, causing significant problems after birth. 

The effects of substance use in pregnancy will vary by a woman’s drug of choice. For example, alcohol abuse during pregnancy can lead to an array of developmental disabilities called Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), which affect a child’s health and ability to learn. Marijuana abuse during pregnancy is linked to low birth rates and issues with the child’s brain development. Opioid use in pregnancy – yes, even those prescription pain pills – can cause Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) in a newborn, which causes painful symptoms in the baby for up to six months after birth. 

Some other, general issues caused by substance use in pregnancy include:

  • Poor functioning of the placenta, depleting the oxygen and nutrients provided to the fetus
  • Miscarriage and stillbirth, if the placenta is not functioning properly
  • Low birthweight (less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces)
  • Early or premature birth, usually more than three weeks before expected delivery
  • Birth defects, including underdeveloped or deformities in body parts and organs (e.g. the heart or lungs)
  • Infections such as hepatitis C and HIV, if drugs were used intravenously during pregnancy
  • Neonatal abstinence syndrome, which involves painful withdrawal symptoms after a baby is exposed and gets addicted to drugs in the womb. This can lead to:
    • Breathing difficulties
    • Premature birth or low birth weight
    • Hypoglycemia
    • Bleeding of the brain

On top of the direct consequences of substance use in pregnancy, there is also a risk that a woman battling addiction will not receive proper prenatal care. Some women who use drugs are afraid to see a doctor, in fear of being judged or reported to authorities. Currently, twenty three states consider substance abuse in pregnancy child abuse, which contributes to the stigma that women often face.

How to Get Help if You Are Pregnant and Addicted to Drugs

Due to the stigma, many pregnant women also are scared to get help for their drug abuse problems. Despite the fact that addiction is a disease, they fear the consequences that may come from seeking treatment – Will they be able to parent their child? Will they be able to defeat addiction? Will they be able to be a good mother? These are questions we hear all the time, from young women who are pregnant and seeking help.

If you or a loved one is pregnant and addicted to drugs, know that help is available. Substance addiction is a very treatable disease, and your loved one has the capacity to make healthy changes in her life. She has the capacity to be a great mother, and overcome her reliance on drugs. Below are a few tips for finding the right drug treatment center and overcoming substance use during pregnancy:

  • Find a women’s specific treatment center. Women face unique challenges when it comes to addiction, especially those facing a pregnancy. In a women’s only facility, the staff is trained to handle these specific challenges. Women are also surrounded by other women, which can be comforting, knowing they will not be judged and that there are others walking in their shoes.
  • Seek individualized treatment. One of the most important components of a women’s drug treatment program is that it offers an individualized care plan, tailored to your loved one’s needs. They should take into account her situation, her background, and her needs, and develop a treatment program that is completely designed for her.
  • Choose a dual diagnosis treatment center. Women battling a substance use disorder are highly likely to be suffering from a mental health condition, too. In fact, up to 80 percent of young women suffering from substance use and a co-occurring mental health disorder, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or an eating disorder.
  • Select a rehab facility that offers a safe space to heal. There are many things that can trigger a relapse in early addiction recovery, such as difficult/toxic relationships, or stressful living situations. It is important that pregnant women in recovery are given a safe and secure place to heal, where they will be able to focus on their own healing and healing for the baby. In a residential treatment program, women can also ensure safety being away from outside dangers, such as an abusive relationship or living environment filled with drug users.

If you need help seeking treatment for a pregnant loved one, or are battling addiction yourself, please do not hesitate to reach out to Turnbridge for professional advice. You may call 877-581-1793 to learn more about substance abuse and pregnancy, and what to do as a young woman battling addiction. Turnbridge is a dual diagnosis, trauma-informed treatment center for young women battling co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders.