Don’t Let Your Opiate Addiction Affect Your Baby


The use of opiates among women of childbearing age is an increasing problem throughout the world. According to one study, about 13 percent of pregnant women in the United States use illicit substances during pregnancy, and 19 percent of that number abuse opiates.

This amounts to approximately one opiate abuser out of every 50 pregnant women, a disturbingly high rate. Because of the growing popularity of prescription opioids, the rates of opiate addiction are perpetually on the rise.

To varying degrees, heroin, prescription opiates such as OxyContin and anti-withdrawal drugs such as methadone can have serious effects not only on existing pregnancies, but also on future pregnancies. If you’re addicted to opiates and you get pregnant or are planning to do so in the near future, see a doctor as soon as possible to talk through your options. While the effects of opiates on pregnancy can be serious, the earlier the problem is corrected through an opiate treatment program, the better chance you’ll have of avoiding complications.

Women who regularly take opiates but are not addicted should consult a doctor about whether it is safe to continue taking these drugs during pregnancy. It never hurts to be safe, especially when there’s an unborn child in the picture.

Potential Complications of Opiate Use During Pregnancy

The most obvious and immediate negative consequence that can result from opiate abuse during pregnancy is a lack of prenatal care. According to one study, 75 percent of all pregnant heroin addicts never seek prenatal care, and many fail to take any of the steps typically needed to ensure a healthy pregnancy and birth.

This number is likely lower for women who are addicted to prescription opioids, but it goes without saying that any type of opiate addiction during pregnancy can be problematic.

Health risks for a baby associated with opiate abuse during pregnancy include the following:

  • Low birth weight
  • Post-birth behavioral problems
  • Mental or physical developmental delays
  • Learning disabilities
  • Neonatal abstinence syndrome (see below)
  • Stillbirth

People who take heroin or other opiates are much more likely to abuse other harmful substances such as alcohol and tobacco. They are also more likely to have poor nutrition, and heroin addicts, particularly those who inject, are more likely to transmit blood-borne illnesses to their unborn baby.

Dangers of Opiate Withdrawal During Pregnancy

When an opiate addict goes into withdrawal, the body is thrown severely out of balance, which can have serious effects on an unborn child. The effects that typically go along with opiate withdrawal, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, agitation, aches and insomnia, tend to affect the baby as much as the mother, and they can even cause the body to go into an acute state of internal tumult.

In severe cases, this can lead to miscarriage, premature labor or fetal distress. These effects are typically more severe prior to the 14th week of pregnancy or after the 32nd week. That’s why doctors recommend, if a pregnant woman must go through withdrawal, she do it between the 14th and 32nd weeks, and that it should only be done under close medical supervision.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) refers to the period of withdrawal experienced by newborn babies born to opiate-addicted women. It’s frequently seen in relation to all types of addictive drugs, including alcohol, amphetamines, tobacco and barbiturates, and it’s found in at least 50 percent of all cases of opiate-addicted pregnant mothers.

With the rise of prescription opiate addiction, doctors are seeing this problem more and more. Many healthcare professionals who work in labor and delivery report that they were hardly aware of this problem a decade ago, but that they’re now dealing with it on a regular basis.

Symptoms of NAS often don’t begin until several days after birth, as it takes some time for withdrawal symptoms to kick in. This is why many babies with NAS have already been living at home for several days before anyone realizes that there is a problem. Typical symptoms of NAS include the following:

  • Excessive crying
  • Fever
  • Hyperactive reflexes
  • Irritability
  • Eating problems
  • Blotchy skin coloring
  • Dehydration
  • Sleep problems
  • Rapid breathing
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Stuffy nose
  • Low weight or slow weight gain
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures

When a mother suspects that her baby may have NAS, it’s important to be honest with doctors about her opiate use. In the doctor’s eyes, these symptoms could be indicative of any number of illnesses occasionally seen in newborns, so it can be a challenge to identify the problem if the mother isn’t forthcoming about her addiction.

Babies with NAS usually have to be hospitalized until the illness passes, which can take days or even weeks. In most cases, the baby is given the same types of drugs that are used for adult opiate withdrawal, including methadone or Suboxone, and the amount is slowly reduced until the baby is no longer dependent. Of course, in cases where there are other health complications, or if the baby was born premature, more serious measures may be needed.

Recommended Treatment Methods

Obviously, the best thing an opiate-addicted woman can do is seek addiction treatment prior to getting pregnant. Because of the complications that can arise from opiate withdrawal, doctors advise women to wait at least a few months after withdrawal has passed before becoming pregnant. It’s also best to be off of opiate replacement medications such as methadone, although some doctors say that such drugs are relatively harmless during pregnancy.

For women who become pregnant while still addicted to opiates, the best treatment method is to use methadone maintenance or Suboxone treatment. On the surface, treatment may be similar to what is usually seen in opiate rehab — an opiate detox period followed by long-term therapy and maintenance. The main difference is that doctors need to approach opiate-addicted pregnant women with extra care. The treatment should be measured and balanced, and it’s best to stick with the tried and true methods. This way, both mother and baby can recover in the healthiest, most stable manner, promoting the best chance of post-birth health.

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