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Pregnancy can be a wondrous time of life, a time when women become more focused on their own health to promote the health of their unborn baby.
They may start to become more aware of what they’re putting into their bodies and how that may affect the child they’re carrying.
However, if the mother is addicted to a substance, this introspection can become daunting, raising many questions. Is help available? What will it entail? Is it possible to get free from the grip of the addicting substance without harming the baby? How does one learn to live sober? Is help really available for pregnant women that is truly safe?
Dangers and Risks of Abusing Substances during Pregnancy
There are many factors that play into the dangers and risks associated with using substances while pregnant. How much is the substance used, at what point in the pregnancy was the substance introduced, and what is the specific substance? Different substances bring about different risks in pregnancy, but in general, risks to the unborn fetus due to substance abuse include:
- Small head size
- Low birth weight
- Premature birth
- Birth defects
- Sudden infant death syndrome
- Drug dependency in the baby
- Heart defects: Drinking alcohol and taking certain drugs during pregnancy can result in heart defects, particularly septal defects (a hole in the heart). The majority of infants born with heart defects die within the first year of life.
- Infections, including hepatitis C and HIV: These viruses are often transmitted by people who share needles during injection drug use. Viruses can then be passed on to the unborn baby during pregnancy or at birth. These infections can cause serious damage and even death to infants.
- Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS): This syndrome can occur when a baby is born addicted to a substance due to the mother’s intake of that substance during pregnancy, thus causing withdrawal symptoms in the newborn.
In addition, there are other possible complications that can occur later in life, including behavior/learning problems and slower growth rates in some children.
Use of marijuana, cocaine, opioids, methamphetamines, and heroin all carry the risk of preterm labor in pregnant women. Each substance has its own individual risks to the baby after birth, such as feeding problems, respiratory problems, poor growth, behavioral problems, SIDS, etc. The sooner a woman incorporates intervention with cessation of the offending substance, the better chance her baby has at being born full-term without complications.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2013, 1 in 33 pregnant women reported binge drinking (defined as consuming four or more drinks on one occasion) in the past 30 days. According to the study, the highest prevalence was among women 35-44 years of age who were college educated and not married.
Alcohol is a known teratogen (an agent or factor that causes malformation of an embryo). The use of teratogenic substances during the first trimester is particularly concerning, as it is a time that can most affect the development of the embryo/fetus.
Alcohol abuse during pregnancy is the leading known cause of developmental problems and birth defects in the United States, according to the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS), with alcohol ranking above other street drugs in potential serious effects to the fetus.
In addition, the use of alcohol or drugs during pregnancy often leads to not seeking out crucial prenatal care, leading to the potential of other complications for the growing fetus.
Detox for Pregnant Women
Detox can also mean weaning off a drug, slowly tapering the amount given over time until the drug is no longer given. In some instances, such as opiate addiction, replacement medications like methadone may be used during detox. Per the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are no medications approved by the FDA to treat opiate addiction in pregnant women; however, methadone and buprenorphine are often used in this population.
When alcohol is the offending agent, detox may include the use of other prescribed medications when deemed necessary, but for as short a time as possible. These medications may be incorporated into the detox treatment plan to avoid other more serious withdrawal symptoms that could affect the unborn child. As these medications are also teratogenic, as is alcohol, they are generally used sparingly and only when the benefit outweighs the risk. Again, medical supervision is vital.
During the detox period, other recovery resources are incorporated to help pregnant women learn to live drug-free lives. While detox and medical stabilization are critical, they do not constitute drug addiction treatment on their own. Detox must be followed by comprehensive therapy to address the causes that led to substance abuse.
While the health of both the unborn child and the pregnant mother is the primary focus of treatment, the ultimate goal is complete recovery. This will ensure that the mother is in a solid position to care for and parent her new child free from abusive use of any substances.
Pregnant women and their unborn children should be carefully monitored during detox from any substance. While the process can be uncomfortable, medical management will help to lessen the unpleasantness of the experience. Under no circumstances should a pregnant woman attempt to detox at home on her own; medical care is always required.
In a 2010 report by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, only 19 states had drug treatment programs for pregnant women and only nine of those gave priority access to pregnant women. In addition, studies suggest that women abusing substances are more likely to have been victims of sexual or domestic abuse, and therefore require specialized treatment to address these issues.
If you’re a pregnant woman looking for help, choose a center that is well versed in treating women who are pregnant. Pregnancy necessitates specialized treatment during both detox and addiction treatment. Not all centers are equipped to help women who are pregnant, so it’s important to confirm this area of expertise before enrolling in a particular program.
Risks and Complications of Treatment
Help for Pregnant WomenThere is sometimes the thought process, especially when drugs or alcohol have been consumed in the first trimester, that damage has been done and treatment would serve no real purpose. This is unfounded. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, treatment, even after the first trimester, that involves discontinuation of the offending substance, good nutrition, and prenatal care can be beneficial, and the fetus oftentimes “catches up” in growth and development. Comprehensive care, along with a nurturing and encouraging environment, can help to continue this positive momentum for the newborn, offering the baby and mother the best chances for full recovery.
For women seeking help, there is frequently an underlying fear of judgment from others or healthcare professionals, fear of law enforcement, and fear of actually living sober. These are all legitimate concerns that can be addressed with an intake specialist at a treatment center. If the rehab center is geared toward working with pregnant women, staff members will understand these concerns and be able to alleviate anxiety about taking the next step toward a healthier life.
In weighing options, it’s important to consider what would happen if one does not get help. The risks to an unborn fetus are great, not to mention the consequences to the mother if substance abuse continues. Addiction only grows without intervention, as do the harsh realities that accompany addiction.
- Medical detox, if needed
- A specialized treatment plan designed by professionals from various specialties
- Pregnancy education and counseling
- Parenting education
- Individual, group, and family therapy
- Assessment and treatment for co-occurring disorders
- 12-Step programming
- Prenatal care
- Life skills workshops
- Aftercare planning
Addiction is a disease and should carry no more stigma other chronic diseases, like diabetes and heart disease. Therefore, there is no shame in having such a disease, and it can be effectively managed on a long-term basis with proper care.
New life is a time for celebration as is each day of sobriety. Pregnant women can enjoy this fresh journey in life with newfound sobriety and continued recovery. Help is available.