Substance Abuse During Pregnancy: Alcohol, Opiates and Meth–Will My Drug Addiction Hurt My Baby?

Get the help you need now, and your baby will thank you later. Image by Decoded Pregnancy, all rights reserved.

Get the help you need now, and your baby will thank you later. Image by Decoded Pregnancy, all rights reserved.

Chemical Dependency rarely starts in pregnancy. Addictive disease has causes, such as severe abuse or other psychological trauma in childhood. Addiction and alcoholism may even be genetic; substance abuse may affect all the members of a family.

Unintended pregnancy may occur during instances of impaired judgment. If you are addicted and expecting a baby, you are most likely scared and wondering how to help yourself and your unborn child.

You may be afraid to get prenatal care, worry about facing legal problems or having a safe place to live, or your family finding out. You also worry about your baby’s health and development.

Substance Abuse and Pregnancy

Substance abuse affects mothers in all walks of life; you are not alone. Addiction is a disease that responds to treatment. Decoded Pregnancy encourages you to seek help and learn more by attending self-help meetings or enrolling in a treatment program. Find a doctor or midwife you are comfortable with, who will tailor your prenatal care to your individual needs.

How do drugs impact a pregnancy? That depends on the amount and frequency of use as well as the type of drug. Problems can also occur because of drug effects, such as dehydration, poor diet, inadequate rest, and increased stress levels. What substances all have in common is an increased risk of early pregnancy loss.

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If you aren’t yet 12 weeks gestation, stopping alcohol, cocaine or methamphetamine use now will reduce your risk of miscarriage. If you are more than 12 weeks along, there are other concerns, but a baby who is very active in the womb (you should feel flutters by around 4 months) is probably thriving.

I have counseled hundreds of chemically dependent expectant women over many years. I am glad to report that the risks of serious problems, for either mom or baby, are relatively low if you seek help during your pregnancy. If you wait until after you give birth to get into treatment, the risks for you and your baby are much higher.

Opiate Withdrawal May Endanger Pregnancy

There are special considerations for those addicted to opiates. This class of drugs includes highly addictive, prescription pain medications, such as hydrocodone (Vicodin), as well as illicit intravenous-use drugs like heroin. You could die from an overdose of these drugs. In addition, the lifestyle of IV drug users sometimes exposes infants and their mothers to serious infections, such as HIV or hepatitis B, and violence.

On the other hand, detoxing cold turkey – stopping abruptly – could put your pregnancy at risk, especially during the first trimester (it can cause early pregnancy loss) or third trimester (you can go into premature labor). Get help now, and get off the drugs safely.

Dangers of Hidden Addiction

What if you don’t tell anyone about your addiction when you go to the hospital to deliver your baby?

Doctors may prescribe opiate-antagonist pain relievers during labor – these drugs are known to have unwanted effects for opiate users, and the fetal monitor tracing of your baby’s heartbeat could look unusual, adding unnecessary interventions if your caregivers don’t realize opiate use is the cause. In addition, addicted newborns may experience intense and painful withdrawal symptoms, so caregivers will need to know to respond appropriately.

Struggling With Opiate Addiction During Pregnancy

What can you do if you are struggling with opiate addiction? Weaning off prescription meds slowly, with medical supervision, is a sensible course. County-run programs and private doctors can also prescribe alternatives to heroin, such as methadone, a long-acting pain reliever which can be tapered off with milder withdrawal symptoms or used as maintenance for many months, depending on your history. Experts oversee maintenance programs aimed at eliminating the dangers of a drug-seeking lifestyle; most are linked to addiction counseling.

Alcohol During Pregnancy May Cause Abnormal Intellectual or Behavioral Development in Fetus

Yes, alcohol is a drug. You are not alone if you had a few too many before you realized you were pregnant. In the majority of cases, no harm occurs. Stop drinking as soon as you discover you are expecting, because prolonged heavy drinking puts babies at great risk.

A long-term study funded by The National Institutes of Health found that neurological impairment, including growth, speech and intellectual delays, occurred in 44% of infants whose mothers drank four or more servings of alcohol per day, while abnormal facial features associated with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome affected 17% of the newborns. Since experts consider no amount of alcohol safe, you are smart to avoid it altogether. If you cannot quit drinking, seek help now. Alcohol can affect your baby’s brain development even in the last trimester.

Methamphetamine Constricts Maternal Blood Flow

Methamphetamine is a stimulant. This addictive drug has effects similar to those of cocaine, but is cheaper and more available in many regions of the country. Chances are you or someone you know is addicted to “speed” or “crystal.” Users most often smoke this drug, but some snort or inject it as well. Like tobacco, methamphetamine restricts blood circulation to the placenta, reducing supplies of fetal oxygen and nutrients, resulting in an abnormally small infant because of prolonged deprivation.

In severe cases, birth defects such as missing fingers or toes occur. Learning disabilities are another possible consequence of methamphetamine use in pregnancy that may not be apparent before a child reaches school age.  Since these drugs suppress appetite, maternal malnutrition is also associated with stimulant abuse.

Getting Healthy for You and Your Baby

Getting help and getting off the drugs should be your priority if you are a chemically dependent pregnant woman. Twelve step meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, free and widely available, offer safe, non-judgmental self-help. Many of the people there have been in your shoes; they know what it takes to get clean and sober and how to stay that way.

You can find trained counselors in social-model or clinical treatment programs. Short-term (a week or less) detox facilities can provide you with a safe and supportive environment to kick your habit, with follow-up options such as outpatient programs that provide on-site daycare or long-term residential facilities for women with children. Tip: You have a better chance of accessing care if you show up in person during business hours; callers often get put on waiting lists.

Your Pregnancy Is An Opportunity to Start a New Life Without Drugs

Drug and alcohol use in pregnancy is unfortunate and may have lifelong consequences. Depending on the amount and frequency of abuse, getting high – and the lifestyle associated with it – can put mothers and babies at serious risk. Don’t wait until you go to jail or are court-ordered to clean up and get treatment. When you are in the clutches of addiction, pregnancy offers the opportunity you need to start a new life, in more ways than one!


Kuehn, D, et al. Cognitive changes may be only sign of fetal alcohol exposure. (2012). NIH News. Accessed on May 16, 2014

Prasad, Mona. When Opiate Abuse Complicates Pregnancy. (2014). Contemporary OB/GYN. Accessed on May 16, 2014

Grotta, Sheri Della, et al. Patterns of Methamphetamine Use during Pregnancy: Results from the Infant Development, Environment, and Lifestyle (IDEAL) Study. (2010). Maternal Child Health Journal. Accessed on May 16, 2014

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