Updated on April 1, 2024
6 min read

The Risks of Addiction During Pregnancy

Pregnancy is an incredible time, but if you're struggling with drug or alcohol use, there can be serious consequences for both you and your baby.

Many women can face challenges with substances during pregnancy. This article explores the risks involved⁠—not to cause shame or judgment, but to offer information and highlight that help is available.

Our goal is to break down the risks, discuss potential effects on your baby, and, most importantly, point you towards resources to support your journey towards a healthier pregnancy and a brighter future.

What Are the Risks of Substance Use to a Pregnant Woman?

Using drugs or alcohol during pregnancy can be dangerous for the mother in many ways. It can put a pregnant woman at higher risk of serious infections like HIV, hepatitis, and sexually transmitted infections.

Other risks of using substances during pregnancy include:

  • Blood problems: Substance use can cause anemia (low iron) and blood infections, affecting the mother's health and the baby's development.
  • Dangerous blood pressure issues: Drugs like cocaine can significantly raise blood pressure, which is already a concern in pregnancy. This can lead to serious problems and make pregnancy and delivery very risky.
  • Pregnancy complications: Drug use can sometimes cause the placenta (which nourishes the baby) to separate too early or the water to break prematurely. These conditions are dangerous for both mother and baby.

Mental Health Risks

Using substances might worsen existing problems like depression or anxiety. This makes it much harder to cope with pregnancy changes and be ready for motherhood.

Trouble Getting Help

Pregnant women who use substances might avoid doctors due to shame, fear of being judged, or even fear of facing legal trouble. This lack of medical care puts both mother and child at risk.

Legal and Social Risks

In some places, using substances while pregnant can be considered a crime or a reason to take a child away. This can keep women from getting the help they need.

Society can be harsh towards pregnant women who use substances. Negative judgment from others makes it harder for them to feel safe enough to ask for help.

Risk of Stillbirth

Research shows that smoking, using marijuana, misusing prescription medications, or using other drugs during pregnancy can significantly increase the risk of stillbirth.

What Are the Risks of Substance Use to an Unborn Child?

When a pregnant woman uses drugs or alcohol, her baby is affected too. Substances can cross from the mother's body into the baby's developing body, sometimes causing problems that last a lifetime.

Here's what could happen:

Brain Development Problems

Most substances a mother uses can reach her baby's developing brain. This changes how the baby's brain grows, which can lead to problems later on with:

  • Learning
  • Thinking
  • Controlling emotions
  • Behaving appropriately

Physical Health Problems

Using substances during pregnancy can cause physical problems for the baby, including:

  • Premature birth: Being born too early can lead to many serious health issues for the baby, both right away and as they grow older.
  • Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS): NAS refers to a newborn’s drug withdrawal after birth. Babies can be born physically dependent on the drug their mother abused. This causes withdrawal symptoms (shaking, crying, etc.) that require medical care.
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD): Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause life-long physical problems, learning disabilities, and behavioral issues.
  • Low birth weight: Babies born too small are at risk for more health problems throughout life.
  • Congenital anomalies and birth defects: Structural or functional abnormalities present at birth, often resulting from genetic factors and environmental exposures like substance abuse in mothers.

Learning and Behavior Problems

Babies exposed to drugs or alcohol in the womb may have more trouble with learning and paying attention as they grow. These problems can be especially noticeable when they start school.

Increased Risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

Tragically, babies whose mothers used certain drugs during pregnancy (including opioids and cocaine) are at a higher risk of dying from SIDS.


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Treatment Options for Pregnant Women with SUD

Using substances while pregnant harms both the mother and the unborn baby. It's never too late to get help. Treatment options are available, including:

  • Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT): MAT combines safe medications during pregnancy with counseling and behavioral therapies. This aims to reduce the cravings and withdrawal symptoms associated, offering a safer alternative for both mother and baby. 
  • Prenatal care programs: These programs provide a nurturing environment where expectant mothers can receive comprehensive healthcare services
  • Substance use counseling: Through counseling, professionals acknowledge recovery's emotional and psychological aspects. This empowers women to build a healthier future for themselves and their babies.
  • Specialized obstetric services: This service caters specifically to the needs of pregnant women with SUD. It offers expert medical care throughout pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum.

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Resources for Pregnant Women 

Pregnant women dealing with substance abuse problems can turn to different sources, such as:

SAMHSA’s National Helpline

SAMHSA’s national helpline offers a free, confidential, 24/7 treatment referral and information service for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service can provide referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations.

APA Women’s Programs Office 

The American Psychological Association’s Women’s Office lists treatment centers and resources for pregnant substance-using women and girls, including information on the dangers and risks of abusing substances during pregnancy, detox for pregnant women, and special accommodations.

National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare

The National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare provides resources to support the development and implementation of strategies to facilitate early intervention. It also talks about how to improve access to treatment, recovery, and support for pregnant women with substance use disorders (SUDs).

Opioid Use Disorder and Pregnancy | CDC

The CDC has a page dedicated to treating opioid use. This page encourages pregnant people with opioid use disorder (OUD) to start treatment with methadone or buprenorphine. It also highlights the benefits of medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD) during pregnancy.

Resources on Opioid Use During Pregnancy | CDC

The CDC also has a page that lists resources on opioid use during pregnancy. This page offers a compilation of resources for pregnant people and families, healthcare providers, and public health departments regarding opioid use during pregnancy.

National Institute on Drug Abuse

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has a research report talking about available treatments for pregnant mothers and their babies. It discusses the standard of care for opioid use disorder in pregnancy, including the use of methadone and buprenorphine to improve neonatal outcomes and maternal health.

Using drugs or alcohol while pregnant is harmful to both the mother and her developing baby. However, getting help early on can make a huge difference. 

Compassionate medical care and support are available for pregnant women struggling with substance use.

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Updated on April 1, 2024
10 sources cited
Updated on April 1, 2024

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