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Substance Abuse and Pregnancy: What Women Should Know



Substance abuse during pregnancy is a serious issue that can cause lasting damage to children. 

If a pregnant woman continues to use drugs, she may harm her unborn child. While the risks associated with drug use are well known, many women don’t get treatment for their addiction. 

Some doctors fail to screen pregnant women for substance abuse or offer them addiction treatment. 

But getting help for maternal substance abuse can protect your baby from harm and improve his or her chances of having a healthy life after birth.


Table of Contents

Substance abuse can cause serious problems in unborn babies

Substance abuse can cause serious problems in unborn babies. Some of these problems are known as fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), fetal cocaine syndrome (FCS), and a few other syndromes related to specific drugs.

Fetal alcohol syndrome occurs when a pregnant woman drinks while pregnant; it causes physical growth problems and intellectual disabilities. 

ASD is diagnosed when there are no major physical signs of FAS but an intellectual disability still exists; it’s not clear how much alcohol may have been involved in this case.

Other substances can also affect your baby’s health before birth:

Cocaine – This drug has also been linked to low birth weight, premature birth, and heart defects for the baby after birth if taken during pregnancy. 

Cocaine exposure at any time during pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage or stillbirth. 

Evidence suggests that cocaine use during pregnancy may cause significant brain damage.

Heroin – Heroin crosses through the placenta into your baby’s bloodstream, so using heroin while pregnant puts your child at risk for several complications including premature delivery, low birth weight, breathing problems, and jitteriness upon being born.


Babies born to mothers who abused drugs during pregnancy may require treatment after birth

Treatment may include a combination of medication and psychotherapy, tailored to the needs of the individual. 

Treatment is typically provided at a hospital or in a residential setting, depending on the severity of symptoms and how much care is needed.


Pregnant women who are battling substance abuse may feel tremendous guilt and shame over their behavior.

As a pregnant woman who is battling substance abuse, you may feel tremendous guilt and shame over your behavior. 

The most important thing to understand is that feeling guilty is not necessarily a bad thing. 

It can help motivate you to change your behavior and make better choices in the future.

You may be afraid of losing your baby or afraid of what will happen if others find out about your addiction. 

You may also feel ashamed about the harm you are doing to yourself, which can make it difficult for others to help or support you because they do not want to upset or disappoint you with their concerns about possible negative outcomes for yourself and/or your child should he/she be born with any health problems due to prenatal exposure to drugs or alcohol use during pregnancy.


Many pregnant women continue to use drugs, despite knowing they could harm the baby

Many women who are pregnant and addicted to drugs don’t get help or treatment because they don’t know they need it.

Women who are pregnant are more likely than other women to be reluctant about getting help for their addiction problems and this is especially true if they have children already. 

They may feel ashamed and want to protect the baby from harm by keeping information about substance abuse away from others

—including family members, healthcare providers, friends, and even the fathers of their babies.

A woman’s partner may also be unwilling to get an evaluation or treatment because he believes he doesn’t need it or that his support will make things worse for her during pregnancy or after delivery.


Medical professionals sometimes don't screen pregnant women for drug abuse

You may be surprised to learn that many medical professionals don’t screen pregnant women for drug abuse. 

Screening is important because it helps identify women who might benefit from treatment, but unfortunately, many doctors and nurses do not ask about substance use during prenatal care.

Screening should happen in a private setting with questions asked respectfully by someone who has been trained to ask about substance use. 

Screening can be done at any time during pregnancy and does not need to take place just before delivery or in the hospital after you have delivered your baby.


Treatment of maternal substance abuse may help improve the baby's health and reduce the risks to the fetus

Treatment is usually started before pregnancy and can include therapy, counseling and support groups. 

If you are pregnant and want treatment, call your healthcare provider right away. 

Treatment can help you get your life back on track so you can be more successful in staying drug-free during pregnancy.


Getting help for substance abuse can protect your baby from harm

Getting clean and staying clean is the best way to make sure that you’re providing a safe environment for both of you. 

Treatment may also improve your relationship with the father of your child, which will make life easier down the road. 

Treatment can help you find a new job or get back on track with school so that you can provide for yourself and your child.

There is no doubt that substance abuse during pregnancy can lead to serious health problems in newborns and children

—but getting treatment can help prevent these problems from occurring in the first place!

If you are pregnant and struggling with substance use, there is hope. Treatment can help you recover from your addiction and reduce the risks to your baby.


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