Addiction is a progressive, chronic disease characterized by compulsive behavior, harmful side effects and relapse. Like other diseases, addiction presents serious risks for pregnant women and their babies. Drug addiction is one of the most dangerous types of addiction.
“Drug use among pregnant women is a rapidly growing problem in the United States. It’s prevalence remains underreported.”
Co-occurring mental health disorders, which commonly accompany addiction, also present unique health care challenges. Eating disorders, depression and other co-occurring disorders can cause physical changes that disrupt the development of the prenatal child.
Every substance a woman consumes while pregnant can be transferred to her baby. Alcohol, tobacco and other drugs can pass through the placenta — the organ that provides nutrition and oxygen to the baby — and cause serious problems.
Thus, women who are pregnant or who are planning to become pregnant should avoid substances of abuse, and talk to their health care provider about a healthy diet and lifestyle. Those who are unable to quit using alcohol or other drugs should seek treatment immediately. Women in recovery from addiction should talk to a physician about their health before trying to become pregnant.
In 2003, an estimated 5,000 babies were born dependent on drugs in the United States. That number grew to 27,000 diagnosed cases in 2013.
Symptoms of NAS include:
Addiction can cause a variety of other birth defects, including:
An estimated 21,732 babies were diagnosed with NAS in 2012, an increase of 2.4 percent from 2009.
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. FASDs cannot be cured, but early intervention can help a child’s future development.
Carbon monoxide and nicotine are the two most dangerous chemicals in tobacco. Research cited by the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates that nicotine passes through the placenta and accumulates in high concentrations in the baby. An estimated 910 infants died because their mothers smoked during pregnancy from 1997 to 2001. Studies indicate that the more tobacco a pregnant woman smokes, the greater the chance and severity of health problems for her child.
The THC, in addition to other chemicals, in marijuana passes through the placenta and to the baby. Women who consume marijuana often consume other drugs of abuse, including alcohol and tobacco, which makes it difficult for researchers to determine the specific effects of marijuana on a prenatal child. However, studies indicate consuming marijuana while pregnant increases the chances of several health problems.
Cocaine can force the uterus to contract, which can lead to blood loss and premature labor. Babies born to women who smoked crack during pregnancy — often referred to as crack babies — were expected to suffer devastating developmental side effects. However, according to NIDA, studies indicate the effects are more subtle. These children tend to suffer from learning disabilities, problems with memory and attention problems.
Health care professionals will usually slowly decrease a woman’s dose of opioids or use methadone or morphine during detox, but infants can still be born dependent on methadone or morphine. Health providers closely monitor the health of the baby during detox.
Research on the effects of amphetamines during pregnancy is limited. The drugs are found on the street in the form of methamphetamine and crystal meth or in prescription drugs and some over-the-counter medications. Early studies indicate women who use amphetamines during pregnancy suffer several health problems at high rates.
Inhalants can cause significant damage to the health of a mother and her baby during pregnancy. Because people who abuse inhalants also abuse other substances, very few studies can conclusively link specific chemicals to a specific birth defect. Still, animal studies have linked inhalant abuse to several birth defects, and anecdotal evidence suggests infants born to mothers who use inhalants suffer a multitude of health problems.
“You’re going to have a troubled kid oftentimes because the brain was stimulated with all of these chemicals and now it’s not.”
4.4% of women who sought treatment for addiction in 2010 were pregnant.
“How do we fix this problem? It’s starts by not treating addiction as a moral failing and starting to see it for what it is — a chronic disease that needs to be treated with urgency and compassion.”A variety of treatment options are available for drug-addicted pregnant women, but some treatments have proven to be more effective for certain types of addiction than for others.
About 10 percent of pregnant women report drinking alcohol, and 3 percent admit to binge drinking.
Substance abuse is the third most common reason women seek divorce. It’s among the most common reasons couples seek marriage counseling.
Offering support to a loved one seeking help for addiction is crucial. They may desire space during recovery, or they may vent frustrations to their loved ones. A pregnant woman may be asked to attend family therapy sessions, and it’s important that she actively and honestly participate in therapy to help build a healthy home environment.
It’s also important to remember that people recovering from addiction slip sometimes, and it’s a regular part of the process. That doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for a recovering drug addict to use a drug. It means one mistake doesn’t equal relapse. Relapse does occur often, though, and it’s important for family members to support a return to treatment and not to condemn or judge.
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