Last Updated on May 29, 2024 by Dr. Alberto Solà

Pregnancy and impending motherhood is a very exciting time in any woman’s life.   However, if a woman is battling drug or alcohol addiction or a combination of both, having a child on the way can be stressful for the mother-to-be, and continued substance abuse can be extremely dangerous for both her and her unborn child.  It is imperative that an expectant mother seeks help for her drug or alcohol addiction immediately upon learning of her pregnancy. Hopefully, the upcoming responsibility of motherhood can and will serve as a further motivator and inspiration for getting clean and sober and for staying that way.  Recovery from addiction is difficult no matter what one’s situation, but add a pregnancy into the mix and things are obviously complicated much further for all parties involved.

The Challenges of Addiction & Pregnancy

Addiction is a progressive and chronic disease that is characterized by compulsive behavior, harmful side effects, and relapse.  All of these things can obviously be harmful to an unborn child, as well as to an infant and child in the care of an addict after birth. Furthermore, in many cases, people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol also suffer from co-occurring mental health disorders such as depression or eating disorders that can effect parenting and general familial harmony down the line as well.

Although pregnancy is a natural state, there is no question that it requires a lot from the mother during the baby’s gestation. During this time, the mother’s body is working to keep two beings alive, and she must feed, hydrate, oxygenate, and provide energy for both herself and her unborn baby during those nine months. It is exhausting, and as any mother will tell you, a very difficult time even in the best circumstances.

Each and every substance a mother ingests while pregnant is transferred to her unborn baby.  In the best cases, a pregnant mother eats healthy foods, drinks lots of water, and avoids harmful foods or other substances.  When a mother uses drugs, alcohol, or tobacco, it is as if the child is using these items as well.   Since an unborn baby does not have a choice in the matter, abusing drugs or alcohol is not fair to him or her. Although this is common sense for all, quitting these substances is, for many, much easier said than done.

Risks of Drug and Alcohol Use During Pregnancy

Even women who follow their doctor’s orders perfectly when pregnant can be at risk for complications, so even a single use of drugs or alcohol during pregnancy can be detrimental for a developing child.  Pregnant women need to take care to avoid substances, beverages, and activities that can but their unborn child at risk.  Prenatal supplements, lots of rest, and light exercise are all things that are generally recommended by obstetricians, although the amount of each of these things can vary from expectant mother to expectant mother.

There are a number of birth complications and defects that can be caused by or can be exacerbated by drug, alcohol, and tobacco consumption during pregnancy.  Each of these are extremely tragic, and since most can be avoided by simply not using the above substances, the reasons that expectant mothers that are addicted to drugs should seek help immediately become even more clear upon reading about each of them.

Miscarriage and stillbirth – Miscarriage refers to the death of an unborn child before the sixth month of pregnancy, and stillbirth is the name for this kind of loss in the final trimester. Both are devastating to the mother.  There are many reasons why miscarriage or stillbirth happen, and certainly not all have to do with drug and alcohol use, but substance abuse can be a factor that can contribute to this sort of prenatal death.

Premature Labor & Birth – If a child is born before the 37th week of pregnancy, he or she is considered premature. This can cause a wide variety of problems regarding development and can result in a lengthy hospital stay after birth for a child who needs medical supervision.  Premature labor can also be caused by consumption of drugs or alcohol during pregnancy, and can negatively effect both the mother and child as well.  Premature infants often have difficulty breathing independently, cannot maintain a consistent body temperature, and may struggle to eat or drink for the first weeks or months of their lives.

Placenta Abruption – Placental abruption occurs when the placenta separates from the uterine wall before labor. This can be extremely problematic for the unborn child because he or she receives all nutrients from the mother through the placenta.   Although occasionally a placental abruption can be caused by a fall or car accident, more commonly it is due to smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, or the consumption of other drugs.  It is unlikely that this condition will result in a miscarriage or stillbirth, but it can certainly complicate the pregnancy and may lead to developmental problems later in the child’s life.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders – Formerly known as simply Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, more recent research has discovered that there are a variety of different but similar conditions in children that are the result of their mother drinking during pregnancy. There is no safe amount of alcohol for a mother to consume during pregnancy, and many doctors believe that even as little as one drink can lead to FASDs.   For mothers who drink heavily during their pregnancy, its unlikely that their child will suffer no effects at all from it, and it is therefore best to avoid alcohol altogether when pregnant.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) – Neonatal abstinence syndrome is on the rise as a result of the growing opioid problem in our country. It refers to a wide range of complications affecting infants born to mothers using this category of drugs.   The opioids pass through the placenta and the baby becomes addicted to them.  Subsequently, the baby suffers a painful withdrawal when he or she does not continue to receive the drugs after birth.  Further, NAS can cause premature labor, low birth weight, and small body size. Babies who suffer from NAS may not ever completely recover from this affliction; it may continue to affect them throughout their lives.

Low birth weight – Any baby born weighing less than five pounds and eight ounces at birth is considered a low birth weight baby. Although low birth weight can be the result of numerous factors, this condition is often the result of drug or alcohol use by the mother during pregnancy.  Some low birth weight babies are considered healthy despite their small size, but others suffer from breathing problems, intestinal issues, vision problems, or even bleeding on the brain.

MicrocephalyThis condition, more commonly known as small head circumference, is often seen in children born to addicted mothers. It usually means their brain did not develop correctly in the womb.   A fetus’ skull grows as the brain grows; tragically, a small head often indicates a smaller brain.

Development and behavioral problems – Unfortunately, many children born to addicted mothers experience developmental and behavioral problems later on in life. Drug and alcohol consumption can damage a baby’s central nervous system, and this damage can lead to academic struggles and difficulties with behavior.

SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) SIDS refers to the sudden and unexplained death of a child less than one year old. Although the cause of SIDS is still unknown, studies show that children who were born to mothers who used drugs or alcohol while pregnant have a higher likelihood of this sort of tragic and sudden death.

Treatment for Expectant Mothers

The list above of potential problems, syndromes, and challenges that a child born to an addicted mother may face is not even comprehensive, but it is certainly terrifying and tragic to consider. Certainly, no mother would want her child to suffer from any of these things, but when someone is addicted to drugs or alcohol, even the fear of causing harm to one’s unborn child may not be enough to put a stop to the substance abuse. Professional help is necessary.

In 2010, 4.8% of the women who entered addiction treatment programs were pregnant, and it’s likely that number has increased in the years since then.   Many pregnant women who are addicted to drugs or alcohol are afraid to seek treatment because they fear their child will be removed from them after birth. This is rarely the case, as Child Protective Services’ main goal is to keep mother and child together whenever possible.  Professional organizations such as the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Psychiatric Association have all advocated heavily for keeping mothers that are working on their recovery with their children, rather than incarcerating them.

If someone you love is pregnant, you should encourage her to seek help, but the ultimate decision to do so is up to her.  Begin first with education; although it seems to be common sense that drugs and alcohol and pregnancy do not mix, some people do not know the extent of the potential damage that could occur.  If an addict is unwilling to seek help for herself, family members and other loved ones may need to step in and participate in an intervention.  Once the addict agrees to seek treatment, ongoing support will be necessary, too.

Unfortunately, if an addict continues to use drugs and alcohol while pregnant, its extremely likely that her unborn child will suffer.   The risks can be vast.  The fetus may die before being born, or may be born addicted to drugs.   Even if the child survives, he or she may suffer residual effects for the rest of his or her natural life, for choices made by someone else, and by a mother who was supposed to care for him or her first and foremost.

At Clear Sky Recovery, we want to help our clients break free of addiction for themselves and for their children.   At our facility in Cancun, Mexico, we offer an ibogaine detox program that will help to interrupt your addiction and that will start you on a clean, sober, and healthy path towards a new life.  If you ever plan on having children, an ibogaine detox may be right for you.  Get started on a healthier lifestyle so you don’t have to worry about your unborn child’s health when the time comes.  Call us today for more information.