The Safety of Methadone Maintenance During Pregnancy


By Hugh C. McBride

An addiction to heroin is never pleasant, but for the longest time, you were able to believe the lie you were telling yourself – the one about how the only person you were hurting was yourself.

But now you’re pregnant, and there’s no denying the fact that you are putting your baby’s health at risk. You’re putting your baby’s life at risk. And you have to stop – today.

But you also have to be smart about how you end your heroin addiction. Everyone knows that using heroin while pregnant is an invitation to tragedy, but what’s a bit less well-known is that quitting (or attempting to quit) heroin cold-turkey or without proper medical supervision can be more dangerous to your baby than continuing to use heroin.

The good news is that there is a way for pregnant women to end their heroin addiction with limited withdrawal pain and little danger to their unborn children. This procedure, known as methadone maintenance treatment, is a scientifically tested, medically approved, supervised process that can change your life – and save your child.

About Methadone Maintenance Treatment

For more than 30 years, trained and reputable addiction recovery specialists have used methadone maintenance treatment to help opiate-addicted individuals free themselves from their compulsion to use heroin, morphine, and other opioids.

A synthetic narcotic, methadone interferes with the ability of heroin to trigger dopamine receptors in the brain. By blocking heroin’s access to the brain, and by eliminating both drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms, methadone maintenance treatment allows recovering addicts to conduct themselves with clarity and without a compulsion to use heroin or other opioids.

Because methadone is a potentially dangerous drug (when used without proper medical supervision), its use is highly controlled. Thus, individuals who enroll in a methadone maintenance program need to make daily visits to a methadone clinic in order to get that day’s dose of the drug. One dose of methadone (which is taken orally) suppresses heroin cravings and withdrawal symptoms for about 24 to 36 hours.

Substituting one highly addictive drug (heroin) for another strong substance (methadone) might not sound like a healthy choice, but decades of research, hundreds of treatment professionals, and thousands of former addicts attest to the fact that methadone maintenance treatment is both safe and effective.

Methadone and Pregnancy

If you are pregnant and using heroin, you need to be examined by a doctor immediately. Heroin use during pregnancy can be immensely damaging to both mother and child. Before any treatment plan can be put into place, it’s essential that a qualified medical professional assesses both your health and that of your unborn baby.

The Center for Substance Abuse (CSA), a division of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), describes methadone maintenance treatment for pregnant women in the following terms:

  1. Methadone maintenance treatment can prevent the withdrawal symptoms many drug users experience.
  2. Withdrawal for pregnant women is especially dangerous because it causes the uterus to contract and may bring on miscarriage or premature birth.
  3. By blocking withdrawal symptoms, methadone maintenance treatment can save your baby’s life.
  4. Methadone maintenance treatment can help you stop using needles, which is a primary route of infection for drug users.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that methadone maintenance treatment is a risk-free option for you or your baby. Unfortunately, when it comes to pregnant women who are using heroin, there are few guarantees that both mother and child will emerge unaffected.

Risks and Benefits of Methadone Treatment During Pregnancy

Here’s how the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) describes the effects of heroin and methadone maintenance treatment on pregnant women:

Heroin abuse during pregnancy and its many associated environmental factors (e.g., lack of prenatal care) have been associated with adverse consequences including low birth weight, an important risk factor for later developmental delay.

Methadone maintenance combined with prenatal care and a comprehensive drug treatment program can improve many of the detrimental maternal and neonatal outcomes associated with untreated heroin abuse, although infants exposed to methadone during pregnancy typically require treatment for withdrawal symptoms.

In other words, if you participate in a methadone maintenance program for pregnant women, your baby will likely have to receive treatment for methadone withdrawal symptoms after you give birth. Also, the Drugs Information Online website lists the following potential side effects of methadone use while pregnant:

  1. Offspring of methadone users are at increased risk for mortality, sudden infant death syndrome, jaundice, and thrombocytosis.
  2. Reproductive function in human males may be decreased by methadone treatment.
  3. Abnormalities in sperm morphology and reductions in both serum testosterone levels and sperm motility have been reported.
  4. Animal studies have provided additional data indicating that methadone treatment of males can alter reproductive function.

These potential side effects sound serious – and they are. But they pale in comparison to the risks facing your baby if you continue to use heroin during your pregnancy, or if you attempt to kick your heroin habit without proper medical supervision.

NIDA has reported that methadone maintenance while pregnant is “strongly advised” over any attempt to undergo opiate detox while pregnant.

How to Get Help Today

If you are pregnant and using heroin, you need to get help for yourself and your unborn baby today. If you have a family physician, make an appointment today.

If you don’t have a regular doctor, visit a local social services agency, click any of the links on this page, or call us for a confidential consultation with a counselor who can get you the help that you need.

You know that addiction is a dead-end street, and that nothing good can result from using heroin while pregnant. But what you might not know is that your situation is not hopeless. With the right help, both you and your child can get through this experience and enjoy the family you’ve created.

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