Substance abuse is always a concern. Substance abuse during pregnancy, however, is a grave situation because two lives are at risk: the mother and her developing child. Studies show that women are at the highest risk of developing a substance abuse problem when they are between 18 and 29 years, which is also when many women become pregnant.
Babies prenatally exposed to drugs suffer from neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) after birth, which means the baby suffers from dangerous withdrawal symptoms. A baby is born with NAS every 25 minutes in the United States. This information correlates with the fact that 5% of women admit to using at least one addictive substance while they are pregnant. Tobacco, alcohol, and cannabis are the most common substances, but many women also use illicit substances such as opioids or cocaine.
Why Substance Use and Abuse May Occur During Pregnancy
Age is a top factor when it comes to substance use and pregnancy occurring together. As noted earlier, childbearing age is typically between 15 and 44 years of age, which also coincides with when drug use or seeking new life experiences can occur. Half of pregnancies are not planned or happen at an untimely point in a woman’s life. Some women may even use drugs or drink heavily before realizing they are pregnant.
For many women who find themselves using substances while pregnant, however, the situation runs even deeper than coincidentally brought on by age and occasional substance use. Some women may be already addicted to a substance and already need addiction rehab when they become pregnant. While it may sound like a logical decision to stop using substances during pregnancy, numerous factors can play a role in making it difficult to quit.
For example, only one in three women are able to quit smoking during pregnancy. With more addictive substances, such as prescription medications or illicit drugs, quitting can even cause intense withdrawal symptoms. The added stress of being pregnant or even adapting to the life change after giving birth can also make it difficult to quit. As many as 15% of new moms deal with postpartum depression, for instance, which can heighten the risks of substance abuse.
The Risks of Substance Abuse During Pregnancy
The risks for the baby, if the mother is using substances during pregnancy, can include:
- Premature birth
- Low birth rate
- Miscarriage or stillbirth
- Placenta abruption
- Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)
- Child behavioral and developmental issues
- Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
Common Substances Abused and Associated Symptoms
Each type of substance used during pregnancy can have unique effects on the child:
- Alcohol — FAS, birth defects, fetal death, and neurodevelopmental disorders
- Opioids — Stillbirth, placental abruption, NAS, and greater SIDS risk
- Cocaine — Miscarriage, stillbirth, low birth weight, and small head circumference
- Stimulants — Miscarriage, stillbirth, placental abruption, heart defects, and brain abnormalities
- Marijuana — Stillbirth, premature birth, low birth weight, developmental or behavioral problems after birth
- Tobacco — Stunted fetal growth, higher SIDS risk, behavioral and learning issues after birth
Common Co-Occurring Disorders During Pregnancy
Using substances creates a disposition for other mental health disorders. When a mental health disorder and substance abuse disorder happen together, this is referred to as a co-occurring disorder. Unfortunately, during pregnancy, some women may be even more likely to have a co-occurring disorder than usual.
For example, a pregnant woman who uses drugs may be more likely to also struggle with depression or postpartum depression, panic disorders, or eating disorders. All of these conditions can also have an even more profoundly detrimental effect on the baby and the mother. Therefore, it is important to work with a treatment center that is equipped to handle co-occurring disorders during pregnancy.
Protecting Mother and Baby: Finding Treatment for Substance Abuse During Pregnancy
Being pregnant and addicted is one of the scariest situations, but specialized help is available. Treatment involves carefully monitoring the mother and baby’s health and helping the mother safely move away from harmful substances through various treatment methods. Treatment can be the only way to protect both the mother and the baby and is wholly necessary in most situations.
For more information on pregnancy and addiction, please see the accompanying resource.
Infographic provided by Vanguard Behavioral Health, rehab Tucson
Author bio: Jake Posso is Admissions Director at Vanguard Behavioral Health. Posso is an Arizona native who has battled addiction a number of years ago, therein he went to treatment himself. Upon cleaning his life up, he has acquired a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Arizona State University and has continued to give back to the recovery community. He has worked every position possible in the treatment industry over the last 1