Jan Gerber, MSc

pregnant women

Addiction is a challenging disorder for anybody, but for pregnant women, substance abuse and addiction present serious health risks for the mother and for the unborn child exposed to the substance through the placenta and umbilical cord.

Substance abuse during pregnancy is widespread. According to a survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in 2013, 5.4 percent of pregnant women between the ages of 15 and 44 use illegal drugs and 9.4 percent reported drinking, with 2.3 percent of pregnant women admitting binge drinking. Use of alcohol and drugs tends to be higher in the first trimester than the final two trimesters.

Problems can continue into adulthood, and intervention may be needed to address behavioral, social, developmental or academic challenges. Children of women who use drugs and alcohol during pregnancy are also more likely to become addicted as they grow into adolescence or adulthood.

Alcohol – Many people assume that illegal drugs present the most risk during pregnancy, and it’s true that the consequences can be dire. However, alcohol presents tremendous risks for the developing fetus. Many addiction professionals recommend total abstinence, as researchers believe that there is no “safe” amount of alcohol, and even light drinking can adversely affect the unborn baby.

Alcohol is one of the leading causes of birth defects and developmental problems, according to the National Abandoned Infants Assistance Resource Center at University of California Berkeley. Adverse effects of drinking during pregnancy can include delayed physical and mental development, learning disabilities, hyperactivity, poor coordination, central nervous system problems, and in some cases may result in spontaneous abortion. A serious condition known as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome can cause permanent mental developmental delay, severe facial deformities as well as heart, kidney and central nervous system problems.

Opiates – Infants born to mothers who use opioid drugs such
as Heroin, Morphine, and prescription drugs like Hydrocodone, Vicodin and Oxycodone may be born with low birth weight, respiratory and gastrointestinal problems. They may also display behavioral problems or developmental difficulties in childhood. Infants may have tremors and a high-pitched cry, and can actually experience seizures and other severe withdrawal symptoms at birth. The National Institute on Drug abuse (NIDA) stresses that stopping the use of the drug before the birth improves the chance of a positive outcome for the child (the sooner the better).

Methamphetamine – Pregnant women who use Meth may deliver infants prematurely. Infants frequently have feeding problems, low birth weight and birth defects. As they grow, children born to mothers who used meth in pregnancy may have poor memory and learning disabilities. The problem is compounded if the mothers also use other drugs, including alcohol and tobacco.

Cocaine – According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), pregnant women who use cocaine may have premature births
or spontaneous abortions. Cocaine affects the developing fetus adversely and the infant may be lethargic or have a poor appetite that can lead to malnutrition. As the child develops, problems may include difficulties with language and attention span.

Benzodiazepines – “Benzos” are drugs that suppress the central nervous system, affecting mother and child much like exposure to alcohol.

Marijuana – Many people think that marijuana is a safer drug, but using marijuana during pregnancy presents certain risks. For example, research indicates that infants born to women who use marijuana tend to have low birth weights, especially if the mother uses the drug late in the pregnancy. Infants may also experience sleep disturbances and high-pitched crying. They may be jittery or startle easily. By age three or four, children are often impulsive or hyperactive with poor motor skills. Pregnant women who stop using marijuana during the first trimester, however, have lower risks of negative outcomes.

Benefits of Stopping
For many women, pregnancy and concern for the unborn child provides a tremendous motivation to stop using. Getting clean, even later in the pregnancy, improves the chances of a healthy life for both mother and child. Unfortunately, many pregnant women never receive treatment for addiction, and treatment centers aren’t always equipped to deal with pregnant clients. Sometimes, women who use illegal drugs are afraid to seek treatment because they are afraid their children may be taken away from them.

If you are pregnant and concerned about your use of drugs and alcohol, you can recover and improve the outcome for you and your unborn child. Talk to your health care provider or seek treatment as soon as possible. Be sure that the treatment provider has experience treating pregnant women and the right positive attitude to help you and your child.

Jan Gerber, MSc, is founder and director of Switzerland-based Paracelsus Recovery, an addiction treatment provider providing 100% individually tailored treatment. Jan and his team’s approach to addiction and mental health is based on the philosophy and insights that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health, but that each individual situation is different and warrants an individual approach. Jan Gerber is a contributor to various research projects on the subject of addictive disorders.