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Alcohol and Drug Rehab for Pregnant Women

Substance use can be dangerous for anyone, but it may pose additional health risks for pregnant women and their babies.1 Alongside the direct consequences of substance use for the mother, using alcohol or drugs while pregnant or breastfeeding can expose the fetus or newborn to potential substance toxicity. It can also increase the risk for developmental and certain other types of pre- and postpartum health issues.1

Polysubstance use (using more than one substance) is quite common during pregnancy, with a 2020 study showing that 40% of women who used alcohol during pregnancy also used other substances like marijuana or tobacco.3

Considering the potential dangers of substance misuse during pregnancy, it’s important for pregnant women to seek treatment and/or support if they feel they have a problem. This page will outline the potential dangers of substance use for pregnant and nursing mothers and how to get help.

Dangers of Substance Use While Pregnant

During pregnancy, a mother’s body undergoes many physiological changes—such as those involving the cardiovascular system. The effects of certain drugs, like stimulants, can be especially dangerous in the context of these changes.1 For example, cocaine may exacerbate stress on the heart and cause dangerously high blood pressure.1

There is no known point in pregnancy when it is safe to use recreational drugs or alcohol, and the use of some substances may be harmful even before a woman knows she is pregnant.1

Research shows that some substances may have particularly strong effects on the fetus during the first and second trimesters.1 This is because the placenta, which acts as a filter between the mother and baby’s blood, allows most substances to pass through and affect the developing child at all stages of pregnancy.1

Like an adult, the child can develop a physical dependence on a substance when consistently exposed to it and may experience withdrawal symptoms.1 If this occurs, such as with heroin or other opioids, the child may experience neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) at birth.1 Neonatal abstinence syndrome can result in several troublesome symptoms within the first several weeks of birth, though they can be managed with appropriate care.1, 4

Additional long-term consequences from drug or alcohol use during pregnancy may include:1

  • Small head circumference.
  • Developmental abnormalities.
  • Lower birth weight.
  • Premature labor and delivery.
  • Increased risk of stillbirth.
  • Increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Some substance-related developmental issues may be immediately noticeable (such as facial deformities or low birth rate) while others may become more apparent and problematic as a child grows up.3

Addiction Treatment for Pregnant Mothers

Choosing to get help for substance misuse during pregnancy is a brave choice, no matter what point you begin. Quitting drugs or alcohol can help reduce certain risks to both mother and fetus. Attempts to quit may benefit from medical support and pharmacologic intervention—such as in instances of alcohol and opioid misuse—to safeguard against certain risks.1

If you or a loved one is pregnant and struggling with addiction, treatment is available. There are rehabs that offer individualized treatment plans and pregnancy-specific accommodations.

Women who are pregnant or have dependent children may have difficulty finding a rehab that is equipped to handle obstetrical needs or offer options for childcare while being treated. However, some programs offer accommodations. Some residential treatment programs also allow dependent children to move in with the mother.2

Addiction treatment for pregnant women typically occurs in similar settings to traditional substance abuse treatment:

  • Outpatient treatment allows women to receive treatment while living at home and often while continuing work. Such a treatment setting may be most suited for those with more stable social supports and living environments. Outpatient treatment can take place at varying levels of intensity depending on the person’s needs meaning they may be required to attend treatment for more hours during the week. Outpatient programs may also be a form of step-down care for women who begin in a more intense treatment environment.2
  • Inpatient treatment, or residential treatment, may be a good fit for women with relatively severe addictions or more complex needs. These recovery settings provide 24/7 care in which the woman lives at the facility during treatment. By federal law, pregnant women are given priority in substance abuse treatment programs due to the urgency of receiving treatment for the health of both mother and child.2

Behavioral therapy typically plays an important role in all treatment settings and throughout the recovery process.2 In addition, programs specific for pregnant women are likely to offer additional educational services or help with prenatal care, nutrition, childbirth planning, and specific services.2

Detox for Pregnant Women

Detoxification, the process of clearing a substance from the body, is usually the first step in the addiction treatment process.2 However, the process of detoxing can present dangers to a pregnant woman and her baby and should always be done under medical supervision.2 Because of this, some detox programs will not accept pregnant women if they cannot provide the necessary medical and obstetrical support.2

Undergoing supervised detox may also be complicated by the need to care for dependent children, a barrier that is difficult for many mothers to overcome.2 Finding a treatment that can provide the necessary social support and services to care for other children may be an important factor to consider when choosing a rehab for pregnant mothers.2

Depending on the substance, a woman and her fetus may each experience severe withdrawal symptoms that can be life-threatening to both mother and child.2 Even substances that might not otherwise be associated with life-threatening withdrawal symptoms in non-pregnant persons could lead to fetal distress or even death during unmanaged withdrawal.2

Treatment Medications Used During Pregnancy

To best support mother and fetus, detox is often done slowly and with treatment medications, if needed, to minimize stress to both parties.2 Withdrawal medications may be a safer option for mother and baby than trying to quit without them.2

Medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD) is often an important component of a pregnant mother’s treatment and recovery. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that pregnant women with opioid use disorder be treated with opioid agonist medications to help prevent relapse.5 Two medications used in the treatment of OUD withdrawal include methadone and buprenorphine. It’s important that women receive a thorough evaluation to ensure treatment medications don’t negatively interact with other medications.5

If you or a loved one are pregnant and struggling with a substance use disorder, getting help now may have a positive impact on the future of mom and baby. Many women face social or practical barriers to enrolling in rehab while pregnant; however, there are rehab options specifically for pregnant women.

To learn more about finding rehabs for pregnant mothers, contact the caring team at American Addiction Centers (AAC) at . They can explain different types of treatment and help you find a facility that serves your needs. If you have insurance, they can quickly check your insurance coverage as well. Don’t wait to get support for you and your baby.

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