For most women, pregnancy is a time for excitement, encouragement and planning for the future. But other women may feel a dark shadow during this time. Addiction can cloud the joy of pregnancy and put a woman and her unborn child’s safety and well-being at risk. Whether you intended to become pregnant or not, understanding how your addiction will impact your baby is a key step to making healthier choices that will benefit both of your lives.

pregnant woman struggling with opiate addiction

Right now, you may feel confused, scared or even angry. However, being pregnant and addicted to drugs or alcohol isn’t the end of the line. Addiction is a disease and, like any disease, committing yourself to treatment can make a huge different in your life and the life of your unborn child. There’s hope for recovery and help for women ready to face this disease head on.

What is addiction and how does it impact pregnancy?

A progressive, chronic disease, addiction poses serious risks for pregnant women and their babies. Drug addiction is one of the most dangerous types of addiction, though alcohol can also have a serious negative impact on an unborn child. In addition, since mental health issues frequently accompany addiction, both mother and baby face additional physical changes.

drugs in pregnancy can lead to serious complications

Everything you put in your body while pregnant can be passed on to the baby through the placenta — the organ that provides nutrition and oxygen to the baby — and cause serious problems. If you’re expecting, every time you take drugs or alcohol, your baby takes them, too. Your addiction can create an unhealthy environment for your baby’s development — and could even end in miscarriage.

If the baby does survive the mother’s drug abuse during pregnancy, the child could have:

  • Been born underweight or prematurely.
  • Trouble eating and sleeping.
  • Problems seeing and hearing, which can negatively impact understanding directions and learning how to complete simple tasks.
  • Difficulty staying focused and learning in school.
  • Placement in special education classrooms.
  • A hard time making friends, being social and controlling outbursts and behavior.
  • An addiction and subsequent withdrawal from drugs and alcohol.
  • In some cases, they may even need rigorous medical care for the rest of their lives.

Some of the specific disorders faced by a child born from a mother with drug addiction include:

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome: Caused by exposure to alcohol in the womb, the symptoms of this disorder typically include facial deformities, central nervous system issues and stunted mental and physical development.
  • Deformed or missing limbs.
  • Not fully formed or functioning internal organs.
  • Exposure to illnesses related to sharing needles such as hepatitis and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) .

The list goes on. A woman pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant should seek help to avoid the impact alcohol, drugs and other substances could have on her child. These are medical issues both mother and baby will have to deal with for the rest of their lives.

What can you do to get help with addiction during pregnancy?

You are going through so much right now. Your hormones are causing your emotions to plummet and soar like the world’s tallest roller coaster. You may be worried about being judged or having your baby taken away, but being honest and getting help is your best first step to saving your life and the life of your unborn child. Don’t let these stigmas be a barrier to you getting the right care. Talk with your doctor about your options. Healthcare professionals can assess your specific situation and develop a treatment plan that takes into account where you are in your pregnancy, the severity and kind of addiction and any mental health issues you may also be dealing with.

Some women who participate in recreational drug and alcohol use may find they are able to quit quickly and easily. Women struggling to quit using alcohol or drugs while pregnant should seek treatment right away. Here are some options and expectations you can have about going into recovery while pregnant:

  • Alcohol: Sometimes, simply educating a pregnant woman about the effects of alcohol can be an extremely effective tool in preventing women from drinking while pregnant. In some cases, all it takes is a full understanding of the ramifications of alcohol use to deter further use. However, women suffering from alcohol addiction need more robust treatment. These women must be closely monitored during detox to prevent seizures or other painful physical symptoms of withdrawal. Consider therapy and support group meetings, like Alcoholics Anonymous, to help maintain a successful recovery time during pregnancy.
  • Cocaine, Methamphetamine and Stimulants: Women addicted to stimulants have various treatment options during pregnancy. If you’re pregnant and addicted to these illicit drugs, seek a doctor or rehab facility that offers supervised detox and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Be sure to take the time with a mental health professional to understand why you were drawn to these drugs, and what trauma you may be harboring that led you there. Pregnant women addicted to cocaine and meth also have a higher risk of damaging their own health, such as increasingly high blood pressure and eclampsia, with symptoms such as headaches, blurred vision, abdominal pain and seizures.
  • Opioids: The withdrawal from these addictions have serious side effects, so pregnant women seeking help for an addiction to heroin, prescription painkillers or other opioids must ask for medical assistance. Depending on the severity of addiction, the withdrawal process from these drugs can be lethal to an unborn child. Various treatment options, like methadone, can help lessen the impact of withdrawal symptoms for both the mother and the baby, but methadone can have negative side effects on the child as well. Staying at a rehabilitation center, receiving frequent behavioral therapy and gaining access to social services all increase the likelihood that your baby will be protected during recovery and you both will have healthy outcomes.

opiate addicted pregnant woman

Your baby deserves a healthy start, just like you deserve a healthy, happy life. Seeking treatment for addiction during pregnancy isn’t just about helping your baby, it’s also about helping yourself. Checking into a treatment center, attending Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, re-establishing connections with family and friends and removing yourself from the circle of people that helps perpetuate your addiction are some ways to step forward toward recovery. There are even smartphone apps that can help you on your daily journey to an addiction-free life. However, it’s equally important that you talk to professionals who can help you understand the right path for your addiction and your baby.

Even if you’ve tried to get help several times and found yourself back in the grasp of addiction, don’t be too hard on yourself. You can do this. You owe it to yourself and your baby to try again; you deserve to be happy about bringing a new, beautiful life into the world. Many people find themselves caught up in addiction because of trauma — physical or emotional — or undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues. When you seek treatment, you not only address the addiction, but begin to work on the underlying causes. This not only helps you have a healthier outlook on life, but will help you be a healthier parent for your baby.