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Pregnant Women and Substance Abuse: How Detox Can Help Pregnant Women Safely Overcome Addiction


Addiction among pregnant women is more common than you might think. Know the signs and how to get treatment help.

Unfortunately, many pregnant individuals abuse drugs and alcohol, which can put them and their fetuses at risk. In fact, some women even become pregnant unintentionally as a result of risky behavior associated with substance abuse. No matter what the situation, pregnant women and substance abuse are a unsafe combination, and people who use drugs while pregnant will often experience serious physical and psychological issues as a result, not to mention put the baby in grave danger.

We want to help you find treatment if you or someone you love is suffering from substance abuse while pregnant. Though there are different ways in which this process is achieved when the patient is also carrying a child, detox can be a beneficial option, allowing patients to start out on the right foot as they build a safe, effective recovery.

Call 800-996-6135(Who Answers?) now to speak with a treatment advisor and to learn more about your options for detox treatment for pregnant women.

Pregnant Women and Substance Abuse: How and Why It Happens

There are already many differences between men and women when it comes to the issue of substance abuse. Though men are more likely to experience this issue at some point during their lives, women often experience intensified issues when substance abuse does occur. One of these is the possibility of pregnancy.

Some women who are struggling with substance abuse become pregnant because they are more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as unprotected sex. Others may be the victims of sexual assault while intoxicated. Some desire to have children but do not realize the severity of the side effects that could occur as a result of using drugs while pregnant.

Unfortunately, this happens more often than most people realize.

  • According to a study in the medical journal F1000 Research, a national survey from 2012 found that 5.9 percent of pregnant women use illicit substances.
  • 8.5 percent regularly drink alcohol.
  • 15.9 percent smoke cigarettes.
  • This means over 380,000 children were exposed to illicit substances while in the womb. 550,000 were exposed to alcohol, and over a million were exposed to tobacco.

In every circumstance, whether planned or unplanned, substance abuse is dangerous to both the pregnant woman and the fetus.

  • As stated by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, heroin use during pregnancy can cause a serious syndrome called neonatal abstinence syndrome when the baby is born. The baby will be dependent on the drug in the same way the mother is, and it will experience severe, even potentially deadly symptoms when it is born.
  • There is no general consensus on whether or not marijuana is related to low birth weight (NIDA). However, the use of marijuana during pregnancy as well as breastfeeding does seem that it could be related to mental development issues.
  • Women who use cocaine during pregnancy are at a greater risk of experiencing migraines, placental abruption, and other serious effects. Children who are born in these circumstances are likely to be dependent on cocaine and experience a severe withdrawal syndrome at birth.
  • Alcohol use while pregnant can cause severe effects in the baby, including problems with brain development and birth defects. This is called fetal alcohol syndrome.
  • The carbon monoxide and nicotine inhaled through cigarette smoke could potentially interfere with the fetus’ ability to receive enough oxygen. Often, birth defects, low birth weight, and miscarriage are potential outcomes of smoking while pregnant.

Pregnant women on average take around 3 to 5 prescription drugs. However, it is never safe for a pregnant individual to abuse any type of drug—legal or illicit—in larger doses than prescribed or more often than prescribed in order to get high. This type of abuse can be just as dangerous as illicit drug abuse, and many babies are born each year dependent on addictive, prescription drugs such as benzodiazepines, stimulants, and opioids.

  • According to the NIDA, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of babies born dependent on opioids in the last 15 years.
  • 21,732 babies were born with neonatal abstinence syndrome in 2012, which was a five-fold increase from 2000.
  • Every 25 minutes a baby is born dependent on opioids and suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome. Though this can be treated, it is highly dangerous.

Abusing drugs or alcohol is absolutely dangerous to both the pregnant individual and the fetus. Sadly, many women in this situation do not seek treatment or are afraid to get help. If you have been struggling with this problem alone, there is no time like the present to reach out for assistance and start your recovery as safely as possible.

Recognizing Addiction in Pregnant Women

If you believe someone you love may be abusing drugs or alcohol while pregnant but you are unsure, there are certain signs of this issue of which you can be aware.

  • Pregnant women who smoke, drink, or use drugs often struggle with this issue and may feel morally wrong. However, if they do not get proper treatment, it will be hard for them—as it is for anyone—to stop.
  • Pregnant women who abuse drugs will be more likely to experience mood swings, anxiety, depression, and other serious psychological effects.
  • Pregnant women who abuse drugs may also participate in other strange behaviors like hiding their arms and legs because of track marks, eating too little or too much, or being very secretive.

In addition, a number of severe physical side effects can occur when a pregnant individual abuses drugs, including

  • Overdose
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Premature birth
  • Miscarriage
  • Stillbirth
  • Low birth weight
  • Birth defects
  • Learning problems
  • Behavioral problems
  • Cognitive problems
  • SIDS (also known as sudden infant death syndrome)

According to a study by the Society for the Study of Addiction, infants of alcohol-consuming mothers are at much higher risk of death due to SIDS than infants of mothers who don’t consume alcohol.

What Treatments Are Available for Pregnant Women Addicted to Drugs and Alcohol?

In general, treatment for substance use disorders starts with detox and then continues on with rehab and aftercare. However, pregnant women who are addicted to drugs and alcohol often require specific treatment options that will be able to provide them with the safest care possible. For example, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration states that it is EXTREMELY dangerous for pregnant women to go through opioid withdrawal, as it could cause the uterus to contract and bring about early labor.

  • Detox can still be a part of pregnant women’s recovery process, although certain effects need to be taken into account.

Women who are addicted to heroin or another type of opioid drug (including prescription opioids) will require medication maintenance treatment, which is a form of detox that stabilizes the patient on either methadone or buprenorphine.

  • Babies born in this circumstance will still experience neonatal abstinence syndrome when born because they will be exposed to an opioid drug and likely become dependent. However, this is much safer than continued drug abuse or going through withdrawal during pregnancy.
  • Studies have shown that buprenorphine causes fewer neonatal abstinence syndrome symptoms in newborns, but both drugs can be beneficial (NIDA).

Women who are addicted to illicit drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, etc. will likely need to withdraw slowly. They will often be treated with medications as well as behavioral therapies. Neonatal care is also necessary during this time.

  • Women who are addicted to certain prescription drugs like, stimulants and benzodiazepines, will need to be weaned off the drug very slowly, similarly to the way street drug detox is done.
  • All of these treatments may be included in a pregnant patient’s detox program. Still, it is important to remember that detox alone is not enough to cure addiction, and the individual will also need to seek rehab treatment in order to ensure long-term and effective recovery.

Detox treatment for pregnant women is an important part of the recovery process, but of course, all the special needs of pregnant individuals must be taken into account in the same ways they are with other populations.

What Are the Special Needs of Pregnant Women When It Comes to Detox Treatment?

Pregnant women have a number of special circumstances, not all of which are associated with their fetuses’ health. However, it is important to consider the needs and health of both patients under these circumstances.

According to a study in the medical journal Health and Justice, many pregnant women are afraid to speak out about their substance abuse and seek help. There are many reasons for this. First, the stigma associated with substance abuse during pregnancy stops some women from admitting their problem because they don’t want to be looked down upon. Second, there are some circumstances under which pregnant women who abuse drugs could face legal reprimand.

  • Treatment centers that cater to pregnant patients must understand these fears and help their patients realize that seeking treatment is the best, safest way to recover.

Many women who abuse drugs also suffer from other barriers to treatment such as financial problems, child care, or partners who do not want them to seek help. All of these issues are also likely to occur with pregnant patients.

  • Treatment centers must make seeking care as easy as possible for these patients, which can include providing them with free or low-cost treatment, child care at the facility, and/or a safe, controlled environment.

Pregnant women also require further treatment options than other individuals because they will require prenatal care during recovery.

  • Treatment centers must offer this type of care to patients so they can be as healthy as possible and keep their babies as healthy as possible too.

Of course, not all pregnant individuals are alike, and there is a possibility for many different issues, barriers to treatment, and needs when concerning such a varied group of individuals. As such, it is important that you seek the safest, most effective program for your needs in order to recover from your substance use disorder.

You can call now to learn more about the options available to you.

Who Answers?

Are There Detox Centers Exclusively for Pregnant Women?

There are many drug and alcohol treatment and detox centers that specifically cater to the needs of pregnant women, women with young children, and women in general. Any of these programs could be especially helpful to pregnant patients who need to recover safely.

  • These programs are filled with nurses, doctors, therapists, and other staff members who understand the unique needs of pregnant individuals and can help them recover on the safest terms.
  • Many women who are struggling with substance abuse and addiction benefit from being in a treatment program that only accepts women. This is because issues like trauma, sexual assault, PTSD, and others are common among substance-abusing women (NIDA). Being in an environment where men are not constantly nearby can be helpful to women who require trauma-informed care.
  • Some pregnant patients will need to be in treatment for a long time, perhaps even after giving birth. Treatment centers that provide prenatal care as well as child care can be especially helpful for these individuals. In addition, some facilities even provide therapy and other programs to those patients who need help bonding with or learning to care for their children.

Detox can occur safely in a detox program that provides care specifically designed for pregnant individuals. While one will still need to follow up detox treatment with rehab, this can be the best choice for a pregnant patient who is struggling with substance abuse and truly needs help.

Can Detox Really Help Pregnant Women Safely Overcome Addiction?

Yes, detox can help pregnant women start the journey of recovery and safely overcome substance abuse. However, this should always be done in a professional detox center under the supervision of doctors, nurses, and other medical staff.

We can help you find the best detox program for your safe recovery today. We can also help you find a facility that will benefit your loved one. Just call 800-996-6135(Who Answers?) now to learn more about your options for addiction treatment and recovery.


  1. F1000 Research. (2016). Substance Use During Pregnancy.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). How Does Heroin Use Affect Pregnant Women?
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Substance Use While Pregnant and Breastfeeding.
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Dramatic Increases in Maternal Opioid Use and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.
  5. Society for the Study of Addiction. (2011). Alcohol as a Risk Factor for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
  6. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). Clinical Guidance for Treating Pregnant and Parenting Women With Opioid Use Disorder and Their Infants. 
  7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition)- What Are the Unique Needs of Pregnant Women with Substance Use Disorders?
  8. Health and Justice. (2015). Pregnant Women and Substance Use: Fear, Stigma, and Barriers to Care.
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