According to the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 28.6 million Americans considered themselves current illicit drug users, meaning they had used drugs in the 30 days prior to the survey.1 Continued and regular drug or alcohol abuse can lead to changes in the brain and a psychological and physical dependence may form. And when a woman becomes pregnant and continues to use, two people are at risk for dangerous health complications instead of just one.

According to the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare, an estimated 15 percent of all children born in the U.S. are affected by prenatal alcohol and illicit drug use.2 The dangers to the infant while in utero as well as after birth include everything from being dependent on the mother’s drug of choice to physical and cognitive delays that can impact the child for years to come. Understanding the risks of substance abuse during pregnancy and recognizing you or a loved one has a problem is the first step to protecting both mother and child.

Pregnant woman sitting

Risks of Drug Abuse During Pregnancy

No matter how careful an expectant mother is about how often or what kind of drugs she uses, it is impossible to protect an unborn child from exposure. Tobacco, marijuana, prescription drugs and street drugs all enter the mother’s bloodstream and pass through the placenta.3 Certain drugs can also pass to the infant through the mother’s breast milk. Even though the mother and child are no longer physically joined, the things she puts in her body can still have dangerous side effects on the nursing infant. The following is a list of the most-commonly used drugs and the potential risks to unborn babies:

Alcohol:
  • Low birth weight
  • Spontaneous miscarriage
  • Preterm delivery
  • Stillbirth4
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which is the number one cause of preventable mental retardation and may result in irreversible behavioral, cognitive, and physical disabilities.5

Marijuana:

  • Miscarriage/stillbirth
  • Low birth weight
  • Small head circumference
  • Premature birth
  • Small length6

Cocaine:

  • Miscarriage/stillbirth
  • Low birth weights
  • Placental abruption
  • Premature birth
  • Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS)- Happens when baby is addicted at birth then experiences a variety of life-threatening drug-withdrawal symptoms.7

Heroin and opioids:

  • Developmental delays
  • Low birth weight
  • Preterm labor
  • Placental abruption
  • Miscarriage/stillbirth
  • Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS)- Happens when baby is addicted at birth then experiences a variety of life-threatening drug-withdrawal symptoms.
  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)8

Safe, Effective Addiction Treatment for Expectant Mothers

Many pregnant women may be afraid to seek prenatal care due to the fear of legal ramifications for their substance abuse. Drug or alcohol abuse during pregnancy is considered a form of child neglect or abuse in 18 states, and 15 states are required to report infant exposure to alcohol, controlled substances, or illegal drugs to child protective services under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.9

But with the current opioid epidemic sweeping the nation, states are finding more and more pregnant women in court facing the possibility of losing custody of their newly born child. In the face of mounting criticism and need, several states are working to establish clear “safe care” plans to help pregnant women who are addicted to drugs.

In 2014, the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare awarded grants to Connecticut, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey, Virginia and West Virginia for programs designed to identifying pregnant women who are struggling with substance abuse and treating them. The grants target the hardest-hit communities in rural areas where the culture can often be a barrier to proper prenatal care. In these areas, local health workers who understand the community’s way of life are employed to help pregnant mothers make important connections to proper health care and addiction treatment.10

Fortunately, more and more states are recognizing that addiction should be treated and not punished. Currently, 19 states have drug or alcohol treatment programs funded or created specifically for pregnant women, and 11 states give these women priority access to state or public-funded drug abuse or dependency treatment programs. Four states forbid discrimination against pregnant women seeking addiction treatment.11

Treatment during pregnancy and beyond has proved effective, especially when women remain in treatment for a longer amount of time. Length of time in treatment improves abstinence rates, job retention, and overall positive attitudes toward parenting while decreasing time spent in the criminal justice system. And specialized programs that include some form of childcare or direct involvement with child protective services encourages even more women to seek help.

Substance Abuse Services for Pregnant Women and New Mothers

Successful treatment programs begin with medically supervised detox. And for pregnant women, the sooner detox happens, the better the outcome for the unborn baby. But even those who refrain from abusing substances for the sake of their baby during pregnancy may experience a relapse after the child is born. Drug treatment programs that provide services specifically attuned to the unique circumstances of pregnant and postpartum women may help maintain abstinence rates long-term. Programs may be either outpatient or residential, and many will even have provisions in place so mothers can bring their infants or small children with them into treatment.

Becoming a mother can be stressful and hormone levels may be erratic both during pregnancy and the postpartum period. Getting treatment addresses the unique needs of moms and moms-to-be through:

  • Counseling, which can help women learn how to successfully manage these swirling emotions without turning to alcohol or drugs.
  • Behavioral therapies and group sessions that can identify specific triggers leading to substance abuse and the stressors that may or may not be related to impending or new motherhood. These therapies can help new parents and mothers-to-be develop healthy coping mechanisms.
  • Nutrition services are also beneficial for pregnant and postpartum women and their children. Those in the grip of addiction generally do not pay attention to personal hygiene, regular sleep patterns, or a healthy diet, so improving overall health during substance abuse treatment can increase mental clarity and enhance motivation to remain abstinent.
  • Holistic methods heighten the connection between mind and body and help women regain self-confidence. Learning mindfulness through yoga or meditation may improve a person’s overall sense of well-being. Pregnant women should consult their doctors prior to starting any exercise regime, including a yoga practice.
  • Addiction can leave people feeling isolated and lonely, and peer support and empathy from others in similar situations and circumstances are helpful during recovery. Groups and programs for pregnant women and women with young children exist to form a supportive community for these recovering women.

Continuing support for women in recovery after delivery is imperative to a drug treatment program’s success and should encompass a range of services, including relapse prevention techniques, parenting classes, skills training, mental health evaluations and continued counseling or therapy sessions.

Finding Help for Addiction During Pregnancy

Black Bear Lodge can provide the solace and peaceful environment necessary to recover from drug or alcohol abuse or dependency during pregnancy and beyond. Calls are confidential, and our admissions coordinators are on hand 24 hours a day to answer your questions about the programs we offer. Contact Black Bear Lodge today.


1 Center for Behavioral Health Statistics. “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Sept. 2017.

2Infants with Prenatal Substance Exposure.” National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare. Accessed Apr. 24, 2018.

3“Substance Use While Pregnant and Breastfeeding.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIDA, Sept. 2016.

4Alcohol Effects on a Fetus – Topic Overview.” WebMD. Accessed Apr. 24, 2018.

5Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.” Edited by Mary L. Gavin, KidsHealth, The Nemours Foundation, Aug. 2016.

6Smoking Weed While Pregnant: Is It Dangerous?Healthline, Healthline Media, 20 June 2017.

7Cocaine and Pregnancy.” March of Dimes, Nov. 2013.

8Heroin and Pregnancy.” March of Dimes, July 2016.

9About CAPTA: A Legislative History.” About CAPTA: A Legislative History – Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2017.

10Addicted and Pregnant: How States Deal With Drug Problems When You’re Expecting.” Governing Magazine: State and Local Government News for America’s Leaders, Jan. 2016.

11Substance Use During Pregnancy.” Guttmacher Institute, 3 Apr. 2018.