Pregnancy is a time of many changes for a woman. This can be an extremely rewarding time, but with it also comes many stressors. The physical and emotional changes that occur both during pregnancy and after birth can be overwhelming, no matter how prepared a woman is. This can be made even more challenging if she is struggling with substance abuse. 

Unfortunately, substance abuse does not discriminate. If a woman was struggling with addiction before she became pregnant, she may continue to struggle throughout her pregnancy. Whether it is early in the first trimester or closer to birth, using substances during pregnancy carries many risks. This is why early intervention is so important. There is help and hope available for a mother and her child. The earlier treatment is accessed, the better the recovery outcomes for both the mother and newborn.

Risks of Substance Use During Pregnancy

Using drugs and alcohol during any stage of pregnancy can create serious issues for the unborn child. Some people believe that it is safe to drink alcohol during pregnancy as long as it is early on. Further, there are misconceptions about whether tiny amounts of alcohol are safe to consume during this time. The truth is that alcohol and other drugs must be avoided throughout the entire pregnancy. Even very small amounts can have devastating effects on a developing fetus. Alcohol, opioids, tobacco, marijuana, and prescription pain medications are dangerous while pregnant. Pregnancy is such a sensitive period that even the use of caffeine can pose various risks. 

Unfortunately, many women who use substances while pregnant do so accidentally. They do not intend to cause harm to their baby. This can be because they did not know they were pregnant at the time that they used substances. In other cases, mothers may have known they were pregnant but were struggling with an active addiction and felt unable to stop their substance use, even though they knew they should. It is always a good idea to take a pregnancy test prior to using drugs or alcohol if you suspect you may be pregnant and to seek professional help if you feel unable to stop using.

Using drugs after pregnancy can also present dangers. Just as substances can pass through the placenta, they can be passed through breast milk. If a woman is breastfeeding, it is important to maintain abstinence. In addition to abstaining from drugs and alcohol, speaking with your physician or pharmacist about the safety of any prescription and over-the-counter medications is also important. 

Birth Defects and Pregnancy Complications

There are many birth defects and other complications associated with substance use during pregnancy. They vary by the type of substance used and the amount. However, some common complications include:

  • Being born prematurely
  • Having a decreased circumference of the head
  • Being underweight at birth
  • Exhibiting difficulties with learning

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

Another significant issue associated with substance use is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). This condition is particularly associated with alcohol exposure during pregnancy and is defined by specific characteristics. A child with FAS may experience:

  • Facial abnormalities
  • Issues with attention and memory
  • Decreased height and size of the head
  • Intellectual or learning disabilities
  • Delays in language
  • Hyperactivity

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

Some babies are born displaying symptoms of withdrawal from substances they were exposed to in utero. Babies experiencing neonatal abstinence syndrome might:

  • Experience seizures
  • Breathe rapidly
  • Have issues sleeping
  • Be irritable and cry excessively 
  • Have diarrhea and vomiting
  • Gain weight slowly and have trouble feeding
  • Have discoloration of the skin
  • Demonstrate abnormal and hyperactive reflexes
  • Sweat and tremble

These symptoms might present when a baby is born or within two weeks of birth.

Maternal and Infant Mortality

Substance use during pregnancy also creates an increased risk of stillbirth. This risk of stillbirth nearly doubled when compared to women who do not use substances. The risk of infant death continues even after a baby is born, as substance use is associated with a greater incidence of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). 

Substance use can also negatively impact the mother during pregnancy and birth. The use of opioids increases the risk of death in a mother. Additionally, stimulant use can make dangerous health conditions like preeclampsia and placental abruption more likely.

Postpartum Depression and Substance Use

In the days and weeks after giving birth, a woman may experience changes in her mood. This is colloquially referred to as the “baby blues” and it is a rather normal experience. However, the baby blues can actually disguise something much more serious: postpartum depression.

Postpartum depression can develop after giving birth and persist for an extended period of time. It can disrupt a woman’s ability to care for and bond with her baby. Whereas the baby blues are temporary, postpartum depression can have long-lasting and debilitating symptoms. Common symptoms of postpartum depression can include:

  • Significant changes in sleep and appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Apathy
  • Irritability
  • Social isolation
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless, guilty, and like a bad mother
  • Sadness and fluctuations in mood
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Thoughts of suicide

Like other types of depression, postpartum depression can increase the risk of new mothers using substances. A previous history of substance use also increases a woman’s likelihood of developing postpartum depression. 

Any type or amount of substance use during pregnancy carries tremendous risk. The best way to prevent these risks is to completely avoid substances during pregnancy. With that said, you should never think that it is too late to stop. Whether you are pregnant or believe you might be, you can take steps right now to ensure that you and your baby will be as safe as possible. Having the right support is crucial. Family-Centered Services is here for you and your family no matter where you are on your recovery journey. Our individual and family therapy, family recovery program, treatment placement, case management, and sober monitoring will give you the tools to succeed. Call (509) 991-5822 to learn more.