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Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies: Conquering Addiction in Pregnant Women

Addiction poses a health concern to all substance abusers, but pregnant women face an added worry—drugs and alcohol can also hurt the babies that are developing in their womb. Tobacco, alcohol, prescription medications, illegal drugs, and even caffeine taken during gestation can cause complications in fetuses, doubling or even tripling the risk of stillbirth and increasing the risk of serious defects.1

Fortunately, there are outpatient addiction treatment programs designed to help mothers conquer substance abuse before it causes irreparable harm to them and their babies. The key is to take advantage of such resources as early as possible.

How Drugs and Alcohol Affect Babies

Pregnant Mother Holding Her Stomach with alcoholWhen a pregnant woman ingests food or supplements, some of it finds its way to the placenta. This process is essential for the proper development of the fetus, which gets the nutrients it needs to grow into a healthy baby directly from the mother. Similarly, a mother passes on her own antibodies to her child, giving it immunity from common viruses or bacteria.

Unfortunately, the same process by which babies receive their sustenance can lead to negative effects if the mother puts harmful substances into her body. Drugs, alcohol, and tobacco easily pass through the placenta where they are absorbed into the baby’s system. That can lead to acute problems, such as premature birth or stillbirth, or to long-term problems, such as congenital defects and cognitive problems that plague the child for the rest of his or her life.

  • Given the stakes, it’s important that women seek treatment for their substance abuse problems before their pregnancy progresses. At RECO Intensive, we offer treatment for meth addiction, cocaine addiction, heroin addiction, alcoholism, and more. Rather than judging women who find themselves in a difficult situation, we help them start a new life by regaining control of their health and the health of their babies.

Understanding the Potential Complications

Doctor doing check-up on babyAll substances carry the risk of serious complications in the fetus, but certain problems are often unique to a particular substance—opioid use in the mother can cause withdrawal symptoms in newborns; alcohol can create long-lasting behavioral and cognitive problems; cocaine can lead to respiratory failure and seizures; tobacco can cause anything from low birth weight to death; marijuana can cause memory and attentiveness problems.

Most substances have the potential to cause a range of health-related problems in the fetus, including:

  • Stillbirth: Nearly all substances increase the risk of stillbirth. How much depends on which substances are used. Tobacco may increase the risk by 1.8 to 2.8 times, marijuana by 2.3 times, stimulants and prescription pain relievers by 2.2 times.1
  • Premature Delivery: When babies are born too soon, before their scheduled delivery time, it’s called premature birth. Some effects of a premature birth are short-lived; others may last a lifetime.
  • Birth Defects: Experts estimate that drugs taken to treat specific disorders or symptoms cause somewhere between 2 and 3 percent of all birth defects.2 Illegal drug or alcohol use during pregnancy can make the problem worse. Legal or illegal, drugs can cause a range of physical defects in a baby, from cleft palate and facial abnormalities to growth deficiencies and brain damage. Cocaine use may also affect a baby’s heart, causing deadly malformations.
  • Low Birthweight: Many substances prevent the placenta from absorbing essential nutrients, and that can contribute to underweight babies. 


  • Mental and Emotional Problems: Studies have shown that everything from crack cocaine to marijuana can lead to behavioral and intellectual problems in an exposed child. Learning disabilities, attention span disorders, and other mental or emotional problems are all potential complications.3
  • Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS): A baby born with drugs in its system will already be addicted, meaning it will face immediate withdrawal symptoms that require an average hospital stay of 16 days in a medically supervised unit. At the very least, its first moments of life will be marred by pain and suffering. At the very most, such setbacks at birth can undermine the quality of a child’s entire life.

Illegal Drug Use and Pregnancy

Pregnant Woman With Hands on Her StomachBabies have become innocent victims of the opioid epidemic sweeping the nation. Every 25 minutes, a mother in the U.S. delivers a baby that is already addicted to drugs.5 Unfortunately, the problem has grown to frightening proportions in the United States, with the number of drug-addicted babies quadrupling in the course of 10 years. In 2000, 1.2 babies out of 1,000 were born with NAS. By 2009, that figure had risen to 3.39 out of 1,000 babies, and, by 2012, the figure had jumped to 5.8 out of every 1,000 babies born in the United States.4

The reason? Approximately 5 percent of all women take street drugs during their pregnancies.7 That poses a nationwide concern since illegal drugs can be particularly detrimental to both mothers and their pre-born babies. In addition to the danger of the drug itself, dealers often cut street drugs with other substances that can be severely toxic to an unborn baby.


Dealing with the Problem

Pregnant Woman Feeling Baby in StomachIn an effort to deal with the growing addiction problem, some lawmakers have called for stiffer punishment of women who take illegal drugs during pregnancy, and some states have even passed laws that penalize such women.5 8 Yet most experts agree that the solution to the problem is not punishment but assistance. Indeed, the same rule that applies to anyone else also applies to pregnant women who are trying to battle their addiction—they need a helping hand more than they need jail time.

Some people wonder why mothers can’t simply quit on a dime and abandon their addictive habits for the sake of their children. They don’t understand the challenges people face when attempting to beat back the demons of addiction. To begin with, withdrawing from many drugs, including alcohol, can be both painful and dangerous. In some cases, it can be life-threatening. Alcohol and opioid detox is best done in a safe, medically supervised environment, and that requires access to treatment centers.

Not only that, but substance abuse can compromise the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, reducing a person’s ability to make sound, rational decisions. Finally, fear and shame also drive many women away from treatment centers. Just as pregnant women have special concerns, they also need special care to overcome dependency issues.

The Bright Side: Treating Drug Addiction in Pregnant Women

Pregnant Mother Holding Stuffed BearWhen a woman with dependency issues discovers that she’s pregnant, it can be a terrifying moment. It can also be a decisive moment in her life. Facing reality may be tough, but it’s often the best medicine. Women who have avoided seeking help for themselves may finally realize that they need to make the leap and enter a rehab program. A pregnancy could be the final straw that breaks her resistance to treatment.

The good news is that addiction recovery is possible. There are many treatment plans that work hard to get pregnant women back on their feet, so they can make good decisions that promote the health of their own bodies and the health of the body growing inside them. Effective treatment usually follows a multi-pronged approach. Medically supervised alcohol or opioid detox is also essential for women who are cutting themselves off from a long-time drug or alcohol habit.

Finally, outpatient rehab programs give women access to expert guidance and medical care. One-on-one behavioral counseling, group therapy sessions, holistic recovery classes, and personalized care ensure that she can set out on the path to wellness, regaining her own health and independence, while ensuring the health and independence of her newest family member.


Contact RECO Intensive today to take advantage of our integrated treatment programs.


  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Substance Use While Pregnant and Breastfeeding.” <https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/substance-use-in-women/substance-use-while-pregnant-breastfeeding>
  2. Merck Manual: Consumer Version. “Drug Use During Pregnancy.” <http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/women-s-health-issues/drug-use-during-pregnancy/drug-use-during-pregnancy>
  3. Fox News. “Pregnant opioid users need treatment, not jail, pediatricians say.” <http://www.foxnews.com/health/2017/02/24/pregnant-opioid-users-need-treatment-not-jail-pediatricians-say.html>
  4. March of Dimes. “Street drugs and pregnancy.” <http://www.marchofdimes.org/pregnancy/street-drugs-and-pregnancy.aspx>
  5. The Daily Beast. “The States Sending Pregnant Addicts to Jail, Not Rehab.” <http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/08/12/do-pregnant-drug-addicts-deserve-punishment-or-treatment>

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