It’s the secret nobody wants to admit to: I drank during my pregnancy. I got high during my pregnancy. I shot up during my pregnancy. I smoked during my pregnancy. The nine months between conception and birth can feel like a sacred time. As the fetus grows and develops, its mother can sense its first movements, its wiggles, and turns. The incredibly powerful mother-child bond begins to form. There’s an instinctive drive to nurture and protect, no matter what. The only thing that is strong enough to dull that instinct is addiction.
Addiction rips families apart. Children lose their parents, parents lose their children. Siblings stop speaking. Couples separate. The disease of addiction affects everyone, even pregnant women. Nobody is immune—and no amount of love, natural instinct, or willpower can stop active addiction in its tracks.
How Does Heroin Affect The Fetus?
Heroin and other opiates are psychoactive substances that cross the blood-brain barrier. This means that the drug travels through your body in your blood and dissolves in your cells’ membranes. If you’re pregnant, it means that your blood also carries those drugs into the cells of the developing fetus. For women who are addicted to opiates and who have decided to keep their pregnancy instead of having an abortion, this can be terrifying. They are trapped between two powerful forces: the desire to protect their pregnancy at all costs, and the inability to stop using.
Many women who abuse opiates have inconsistent periods, which means that they may believe they’re infertile. Or they may not realize that they’re pregnant until weeks or even months into the pregnancy. By the time they learn that they are pregnant, they may have used heroin many times, and created complications for the pregnancy and their future child.
If I Decide To Keep The Pregnancy, What Am I Getting Into?
Using opiates during a pregnancy increases the likelihood of prenatal obstetric complications by 600%, according to the CDC. Those complications include miscarriage, low birth weight, and an increased risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Also, women who abuse opiates tend to have poor prenatal nutrition and decreased general health, which adds to the physical stress of a pregnancy. They’re also more likely to abuse other substances and may be exposed to blood-borne diseases like hepatitis and HIV, which can have an adverse effect on a developing fetus.
Also, if the fetus is exposed to drugs, especially opiates, while it’s still in the womb, the baby can be born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). That means that the baby is born physically addicted to drugs and will have to go through withdrawal. For babies with NAS, withdrawal can last from one week to three months. NAS is not caused by the standard medical interventions that some women elect to use during birth, such as morphine or an epidural. It is caused by regular, repeated exposure to drugs. Babies with NAS can face all kinds of health and development issues and are at a higher risk for falling into substance abuse later in life. On average, 13,000 or more babies a year are born with withdrawal symptoms from opiates, including prescription drug opiates like Oxycontin and Vicodin.
I’m A Pregnant Heroin Addict, What Do I Do?
Of course, every woman has the right to make her own informed choices about her body. That includes pregnancy, prenatal care, abortion, and postnatal care. Many women with addiction who decide to keep their pregnancy need support in quitting opiates—without increasing their risk of miscarriage. Quitting abruptly or cold turkey can endanger the pregnancy. Withdrawal symptoms, which are difficult to navigate for anyone, pregnant or not, are especially harmful to developing cells.
Once the woman has all the information she needs to make an informed choice, getting medical help is crucial in order to have a healthy pregnancy. It is possible to give birth to a perfectly normal, healthy baby, even if you’ve used heroin regularly. Medications like methadone and Subutex can help the mother quit using opiates, and do not have an adverse effect on the fetus. Emotional support is important as well and ensuring that the mother feels safe and secure to raise her baby. A support group, therapist, or another caring group can help during this incredible transition.
For some women, pregnancy is the wake-up call they needed to get sober and start taking steps towards addressing their addiction. Children with sober parents have a good shot at a great life: their mothers and fathers are there to love and raise them. They aren’t out getting loaded, spending the rent or grocery money on dope, and bringing unsafe strangers home. No matter what a child’s beginning, the gift of a sober mother can last a lifetime. If you’re pregnant and need help getting sober, reach out to our community.