Motherhood is an exciting and challenging experience filled with opportunities for growth and learning. For some women, however, motherhood is complicated by personal struggles like drug or alcohol addiction.

The gestational period and the first few months of life are the most critical times for a child’s development. During these times of major growth and formation, an infant’s development is greatly impacted by environmental factors and the health of their mother. Drug or alcohol use during pregnancy and breastfeeding can have devastating consequences for unborn and newborn babies, some of which can affect them for the rest of their lives.

Drug Use During Pregnancy: Effects on the Mother

The baby isn’t the only one who can be negatively impacted by drug or alcohol use during pregnancy. Drug use can have some short- and long-term health consequences for the mother too. While substance abuse is always dangerous, it is especially so while pregnant. Substance use can significantly raise the risks of pregnancy complications, such as preeclampsia (high blood pressure and swelling in extremities). Drug use can also raise an expecting mother’s blood pressure (gestational hypertension) and increase the chance of going into premature labor.

Drug Use During Pregnancy: Effects on the Child

Drug use during pregnancy has significant, harmful effects on unborn children. Depending on the type and dose of the drug taken, the effects can range from mild to lethal. They can also affect the child throughout their childhood and into adulthood. Potential consequences of drug or alcohol use on a developing fetus include:

  • Low birth weight
  • Preterm birth
  • Birth defects
  • Abnormal feeding and growth during infancy
  • Learning disabilities
  • Heart problems
  • Joint problems
  • Poor coordination

Laws on Drug Use During Pregnancy

Laws on substance use during pregnancy vary by state. Many states do not have laws about drug or alcohol use specific to pregnant women, so the standard laws on illicit drug use apply. There are also laws in place regarding access to drug treatment for expecting women. The federal “Safe Care” law requires healthcare facilities to provide substance use care for pregnant women with a drug or alcohol use disorder.

Only one state, Tennessee, has a “Fetal Assault” law, which makes drug use during pregnancy a criminal offense. In Alabama and South Carolina, women who harm their unborn child through exposure to harmful substances can be penalized through child endangerment laws. Doctors argue that these laws are ineffective because most babies born with effects from substance use are never identified, and the laws may discourage expecting mothers from seeking help for their addictions.

Statistics on Drug Use During Pregnancy

Drug and alcohol use during pregnancy is, unfortunately, common. An estimated 5.4% of women ages 18 through 44 take illicit drugs while pregnant. Another 7.6% report drinking alcohol during pregnancy. The percentage of women who use drugs while pregnant is highest among those ages 18 through 25, while the highest prevalence of alcohol consumption is among women ages 35 through 44. Many of these women start their pregnancies already using drugs — the unintended pregnancy rate is high among women with substance use disorders.

Babies Born Addicted to Drugs

When expecting mothers take drugs, the substances pass from their bloodstream into their babies. Unborn babies can develop a chemical dependency on drugs just like adults can. The consequence of such drug use is that the babies of mothers who use a substance during pregnancy are often addicted to it when they are born. As many as 3.4 live births out of every 1000 in the United States are like this, amounting to 32,000 babies born addicted to drugs every year.

Also like adults, newborn infants go through a period of withdrawal shortly after birth if they were born with an addiction. This condition is known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). Babies with NAS need extra medical attention during the first few days of their lives.

Side Effects in Babies Born Addicted to Drugs

Babies born with a drug addiction can start to show symptoms of withdrawal within the first 24 hours after their birth. Symptoms can continue for several days. It is important that babies born addicted to drugs undergo medically-assisted detoxification and remain under observation in the hospital for at least five to seven days. These babies need attentive, follow-up care afterward as well.

Many different issues can happen when a baby is born addicted. In addition to the long-term effects of prenatal drug exposure, babies experience short-term side effects from drug withdrawal. Symptoms of drug withdrawal in newborns include:

  • Excessive crying
  • High-pitched crying
  • Tremors
  • Irritability
  • Poor sleep
  • Trouble nursing
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Sweating
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Mottled rash
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Hyperventilation
  • Seizures
  • Failure to thrive

Treatment Options for Babies Born Addicted to Drugs

Like adults addressing addiction, babies born with addiction require medical care while they detox and recover. In the past, babies were gradually weaned off of the substances they were addicted to. For example, doctors would give infants with opioid addictions gradually decreasing doses of morphine.

Today, a combination of different approaches can be used if appropriate to a baby’s specific condition. Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital is using a new method to help infants with NAS, called “Eat, Sleep, Console.” With this approach, babies are kept in a low-stimulation environment close to their mothers, where they can nurse on demand and be comforted. With this method, babies only need to stay in the hospital for about six days depending on their health, instead of weeks like they would need to in the past.

Drug or Alcohol Abuse in New Mothers

The period right after giving birth is a tough time for any woman, even under the best of circumstances. High amounts of stress, abrupt hormonal changes, and postpartum medical conditions can lead to mental health disorders, like depression. This risk can make new mothers particularly vulnerable to substance use disorders. Many women manage to abstain from drugs or alcohol during pregnancy, but 80% of new mothers experience a sobriety setback after giving birth.

How Drug or Alcohol Use Affects Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is beneficial for infants in many ways. It can boost a baby’s immune system by passing antibodies from mother to child and can promote emotional bonding. The nutrients a mother eats are passed on to her baby. Breastfeeding can even help a baby recover from NAS faster. Conversely, many harmful substances that a mother consumes are also passed on to her baby through breastfeeding.

Low doses of drugs or alcohol are present in the breast milk of mothers who use. No serious effects are seen in infants whose mothers drink low amounts of alcohol. However, alcohol consumption while breastfeeding can reduce the amount of milk a woman produces and it can disrupt the baby’s sleep cycle. Heavy drinking may have long-term effects on a breastfed child’s motor coordination and verbal skills.

Even small amounts of illicit drugs in breast milk can have harmful effects on an infant. Some drugs, like cocaine, can pass through breast milk efficiently and can cause severe toxicity in a baby. Exposure to other substances, such as marijuana, can increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

How Drug or Alcohol Use Affects Mental Health After Pregnancy

The postpartum period can be a very sensitive time for a new mother’s mental health. Substance use disorders are linked to mental health disorders in general and increase the risk of developing depressionanxiety, and other mood disorders. This risk is especially high for women who recently gave birth.

Health Effects of Substance Use on Children

Sadly, children often bear the consequences of their parents’ substance use. Mothers who abuse drugs or alcohol are in turn much more likely to abuse their children physically or mentally. An estimated 50-80% of child welfare cases involve at least one parent who uses drugs or alcohol. The vast majority of the parents are mothers.

Additionally, children may suffer from nutritional deficiencies and develop health problems from living in an unsafe or unclean environment. Children who grow up with a parent who abuses drugs are more likely to develop a psychological condition or substance use disorder than children who do not.

Children of any age can experience the long-term effects of drug use during pregnancy. Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and other conditions from prenatal drug use can affect children for the rest of their lives. Kids who were exposed to drugs or alcohol in utero may have trouble in school and tend to have a lower IQ than non-exposed children. Their social development may also be impacted and they may have challenges socializing with their peers.

Options for Moms in Recovery or Seeking Treatment

For their own health, and the health of their current and future children, mothers, and moms-to-be need effective help for substance use disorders. They need to be treated for co-occurring mental health conditions at the same time their addiction is treated. This process can be difficult to undertake when raising young children. Fortunately, there are treatment options catered specifically to new or expecting mothers.

Addiction Treatment for Expecting Moms

Pregnancy comes with its own healthcare needs. Expecting mothers living with an addiction need devoted maternity care in addition to addiction-related care. Inpatient and outpatient programs exist for pregnant women with substance use disorders that provide medical care for the mother’s disorder and for the developing baby. Some programs also offer prenatal education, addressing topics from parenting to maternal mental health.

Addiction Treatment for New Moms

New mothers are going to be very busy taking care of their newborn babies. Because of this, and sometimes due to fears of losing custody of their child, it can be difficult for some mothers to seek help from addiction treatment programs. Many rehabilitation facilities help address these concerns by offering programs for mothers with young children.

New mothers can find inpatient and outpatient programs that cater to their specific needs. Like other programs, treatment for new mothers can be done with individual, family or group therapy. These programs often offer childcare services for the time that mothers spend in treatment. Parenting classes and child healthcare may also be available.

Options for Moms in Recovery

As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. All mothers need a strong support network to help them navigate motherhood, especially when concerned about experiencing sobriety setbacks. Many rehabilitation clinics offer continuing support for mothers who have successfully completed one of their recovery programs. Mothers often benefit from support groups of other moms in recovery who understand their situation and can offer advice and encouragement.

Substance Abuse, Pregnancy, and Breastfeeding by Drug

Different substances have different effects on expecting or breastfeeding mothers and their infants. Because drugs affect people in different ways it’s important to learn more about different types of drugs so that mothers understand how their bodies may be affected. Learning the effects of common drugs when pregnant or breastfeeding can be broken apart by drug type:

If you live with a substance use disorder and are thinking of becoming pregnant, or recently gave birth and are ready to address your addiction, contact The Recovery Village today to speak with a representative about how professional addiction treatment can help. Individualized treatment programs ensure that each patient receives the care and treatment that meets their needs. You deserve a healthier future, call today.

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Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more

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Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.