SubstanceEstimated Pregnant US Users, 2013-2014
Other Illicit Drugs47,000
Pain Relievers25,000
Alcohol1 in 10 (any alcohol use); 1 in 33 (binge drinking)*

In 2012, an estimated 5.9 percent of pregnant women in the US used illicit drugs, and around 8.5 percent drank alcohol during pregnancy. Nicotine, marijuana, and cocaine are the top three drugs used by pregnant women. The following table gives number figures for use of various substances among pregnant women.

Why Addiction and Pregnancy Add Up to a Serious Public Health Concern

Not only is addiction harmful to the pregnant woman, it is harmful to her developing baby as well; a range of harmful consequences to both mother and baby can result. Babies born to addicted mothers can suffer from health consequences like low birth weight, or they may be born addicted to the drugs the mother has ingested, resulting in a phenomenon known as neonatal abstinence syndrome. This can increase a baby’s risk of seizures, breathing and feeding difficulties, and even death.

Special Addiction Treatment Needs of Pregnant Women

Because of the effects on both herself and her developing child, any pregnant woman with an addiction or commonly co-occurring mental health disorder should seek medical help from qualified professionals. There is no single best method of addiction treatment for pregnant women, because each has different needs and risks. Therefore, it is up to qualified health professionals to assess each individual’s situation and develop a customized treatment plan that takes into account her addiction, co-occurring disorders, her stage of pregnancy, and other health and social factors.

Co-Occurring Disorders Can Complicate Matters Further

Addicted pregnant women should be screened and monitored for co-occurring disorders so that they can be treated comprehensively. Women are more vulnerable to mental health disorders during pregnancy, with or without addiction being present. The most common co-occurring mental health disorders in pregnant women with addictions are:

  • Depression
  • Post-partum depression
  • Panic disorder
  • Eating disorders

Any of these can complicate addiction treatment for pregnant women and must be monitored carefully.

pregnant woman in addiction treatment

Problems for Babies Born to Addicted Mothers

Babies born to women with alcohol or illicit drug addiction face greater risk of many problems. For example, pregnant women who use alcohol heavily have higher risks of miscarriage, stillbirth, infant mortality, birth defects, low birth weight, prematurity, and small infant size for their gestational age. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are another risk, and this condition may occur along with cognitive or behavioral problems, delayed speech and language skills, and health consequences that can continue through adulthood.

Addiction to opiates can result in higher risk of low birth weight, respiratory distress, and mortality. Neonatal abstinence syndrome is another risk, affecting from 45 to 94 percent of infants exposed to opioids in utero. Developmental and behavioral problems during childhood are other problems for babies born to mothers addicted to opiates.

Addiction Treatment Options for Pregnant Women

All this is not to say that pregnant women with addiction and their babies are doomed. The good news is that effective treatment is possible during pregnancy, particularly when any co-occurring disorders are identified and treated along with the addiction.

Detox is the first step, and it must be managed medically to minimize the risks to the mother and baby. During rehab, 12-step programs are often available specifically for pregnant women and may be more appropriate than ordinary 12-step programs for these women.

Finally, it should be mentioned that pregnant women should never avoid treatment out of fear of legal consequences. Many cases brought against pregnant women with addictions have been dismissed by courts, and it is widely understood that criminal prosecution is not an effective deterrent to drug addiction among pregnant women and does not have positive outcomes. Never be afraid to seek help.

Addiction treatment is complex in any situation, and is even more complex for pregnant women. Yet there are treatment options available that can minimize the risks, and that can help women start their lives as mothers clean and sober. Treatment must be individualized for each pregnant woman depending on many factors. But pregnant women with addictions should never be afraid to reach out. Help is available. In fact, you can learn more about our admissions right now. Why not take the first step toward a healthy life for you and your baby today?

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