What Happens When a Pregnant Woman is Addicted to Drugs?

Millions of people in the U.S. are addicted to drugs or alcohol. The health, financial, and social issues this causes are well-known. But what happens when someone is pregnant and addicted to drugs? Unfortunately, becoming pregnant will not magically cure the disease of addiction. About one in twenty pregnant women are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Unless a pregnant woman enters treatment for addiction, she and the fetus are at high risk of experiencing a range of health issues and other legal problems that can severely impact the emotional bond between the mother and child. 

Issues and concerns surrounding pregnancy and addiction are some of the reasons why many women are reluctant to enter rehab. Women may fear custody issues and legal problems if they enter a rehab program while pregnant. While it’s true that pregnant women have unique needs regarding addiction treatment, many centers offer care that is customized to the needs of expectant and current mothers and their children. 

What are the concerns facing pregnant women addicted to drugs or alcohol?

Using illegal drugs, alcohol, and smoking while pregnant harms both the mother and the developing fetus. Unfortunately, exposure to drugs and alcohol in-utero can and often do have long-lasting developmental consequences for the exposed fetus. The risk of stillbirth, preterm labor, low birth weight, and developmental delays are increased when a mother starts abusing drugs or alcohol while pregnant. Using some medications, including prescription opioids, is also associated with withdrawal syndrome in newborns. Children born addicted to drugs or alcohol are at risk of experiencing seizures, feeding problems, respiratory issues, and are also at higher risk of dying from SIDs. 

While much of the focus on the drug use of pregnant women is on the risks to the fetus, the pregnant woman herself is at higher risk of experiencing adverse health problems, too. Women who are addicted to drugs, alcohol, or tobacco while expectant face higher chances of preterm labor, miscarriage, and also placental abruption, a potentially fatal condition. Abusing drugs and alcohol can sap any person of vital nutrients, and it can also strain many bodily systems and organs. Pregnancy, without the complications of drug addiction, puts a strain on the body. Adding the dangers of drug abuse to the mix puts a pregnant woman’s life and health in jeopardy. 

Unfortunately, pregnant women who abuse drugs can often face harsh penalties, depending on where they live. Pregnant women who gave birth to an addicted newborn in Tennessee several years ago were subject to criminal charges, according to a law the state passed in 2014 that has since expired. These “fetal assault” laws made exceptions for women who sought treatment for addiction before giving birth. But the problem many women face is that they may face other barriers to accessing treatment. Women in rural communities may not have many choices for treatment, especially if they have specific care needs, including the need for prenatal care while in rehab, or care of any minor children she may already have. 

What happens when an addicted mother gives birth to a child? 

Not all babies born to addicted mothers will display signs of withdrawal. However, babies who are born to a mother who abused drugs or alcohol while pregnant are at higher risk of SIDS and other adverse health issues than children not born to addicted mothers. 


Babies born to women who smoked or ate marijuana while pregnant will reduce oxygen and blood flow to the developing fetus. This can increase the risk of low birth weight, stillbirth, and premature birth, and behavioral and learning issues in children born to moms who used marijuana while pregnant. The studies on marijuana babies are not entirely conclusive, since most women who abuse marijuana also abuse tobacco and alcohol, and these substances can also cause similar issues in babies. 


Women who abuse cocaine while pregnant risk going into preterm labor and giving birth to a premature baby. Cocaine babies may have brain and kidney defects, and also restricted growth and smaller head sizes than infants not exposed to cocaine in-utero. 

Heroin and Opioids

Moms who abuse opioid-related drugs while pregnant are at increased risk of going through preterm labor and having a premature baby. Babies born to addicted mothers may also have hypoglycemia, breathing difficulties, a low birth weight, intracranial hemorrhage, and SIDS. Mothers who inject heroin also expose their child to HIV or hepatitis infections.


Risks associated with methamphetamine abuse while pregnant are similar to those seen in babies born to cocaine-addicted mothers. Low birth weight, preterm labor, and placental abruption can happen when a pregnant woman abuses meth. 


Women who abuse alcohol while pregnant are at risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm labor, and also giving birth to a child with severe disabilities, known as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, or FAS. 

What help is available for pregnant women addicted to drugs?

The earlier a pregnant woman reaches out for help from addiction specialists, the safer she and her baby will be. Attending rehab and drug addiction treatment programs early in a pregnancy can also help pregnant women avoid criminal charges after giving birth. Evidence-based treatments for expectant mothers that include the use of safe medications for managing withdrawals and cravings are valuable and useful options. For example, buprenorphine maintenance, along with prenatal care and therapy for addiction, have been proven effective for treating opioid addiction in pregnant women. Buprenorphine-exposed newborns will demonstrate fewer withdrawal side effects than infants exposed to methadone maintenance treatments. 

Because pregnant women have such delicate and unique needs, they will need close monitoring for withdrawal symptoms and cravings during pregnancy. Therapy, support, and prenatal care options that are integrated within a customized rehab plan are ideal for treating both mother and baby. 

If you or someone you love is struggling with drug use and addiction, there is help for you and your family. The addiction specialists at Mission Harbor Behavioral Health are standing by to answer your questions for addiction treatment and rehab. Please contact Mission Harbor today to learn more about how to achieve and maintain sobriety.