Pregnancy and the Long-Term Impact of Alcohol and Substance Abuse

Addiction takes a powerful toll on everyone it touches. If you are struggling with substance abuse, you are putting yourself at risk for possible overdose, health problems, communicable diseases, arrest and incarceration, accidents and violence. And, you expose those you are closest to to these things, as well.

Addiction is a Powerful Disease

Why is it so hard? Addiction is a combination of physical and mental factors that work together to create a powerful compulsion and obsession to use. In addition, many substances produce a strong physical dependence which only makes things worse. For example, opiate users will experience overwhelming withdrawal symptoms when they go too long without using. But it is often the mental obsession to use that is the most powerful.

When women try to quit, they are often hit with a staggering feeling of depression, loss and fear. Drugs and alcohol affect pathways in the brain that are responsible for our feelings of well-being, enjoyment, satisfaction and contentment. This “reward” system is completely hijacked when we use, and over time, it is literally rewired to only respond to the drugs we put in our bodies. Due to the fact that women have specific needs, especially mothers to be finding a drug treatment program for women can increase the chances of success.

Pregnancy and Addiction

Addiction doesn’t just magically go away when you become pregnant. Women who have never been in this situation will often remark that they “would never” use while pregnant. Unfortunately, many of them do. Denial and time are the enemies here. Women will often put off taking a pregnancy test, deep down inside not really wanting to know, or they are so caught up in using that they miss the signs altogether. It is also common to take the “I’ll get help/quit tomorrow” approach. Next thing they know, they are in labor and social services is paying them a visit in their hospital room.

Sometimes, denial will have you believing that you aren’t really doing the baby any harm. Maybe your own mother used with you, and you turned out fine, right?

Finally, guilt, shame and fear are also the enemy. These keep pregnant women from getting the help that they need to overcome addiction and get clean and sober. They may be afraid or embarrassed to talk to their health provider and get a referral. They may not want to admit to family what is going on. Instead, they keep using and telling themselves that they will stop later, or that it isn’t that bad.

Dangers of Drug Abuse During Pregnancy

The dangers of drug abuse during pregnancy are numerous. Many are unknown. What is known is that using drugs or alcohol during pregnancy greatly increases your chances of having a miscarriage or giving birth prematurely.

Babies who are born to mothers who drink during pregnancy are at risk for a variety of health and mental problems that fall under the category of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

Long-Term Effects of Drug Abuse During Pregnancy

One thing that many people don’t realize is that most of the damage done by substance abuse during pregnancy is invisible — at first. You may deliver a seemingly healthy baby, and think to yourself that he or she suffered no ill effects from your drug use. Unfortunately, this is likely not the case. Your child may suffer far-reaching challenges throughout his or her lifetime as a result of your using.

Prenatal substance abuse, including nicotine and marijuana exposure, has been shown to cause a variety of long-term effects in the following areas:

Cognitive. This means your baby may develop learning disabilities, have difficulty concentrating, impaired memory and learning capacity, difficulty problem solving and making decisions.
Health. Children who have been exposed to drugs and alcohol in the womb may continue to suffer physical consequences, such as chronic respiratory problems, slowed physical growth, impaired immune system and other issues.
Behavioral problems. Behavior problems are often a result of the physiological and cognitive difficulties kid’s face. Issues with focus and attention, learning disabilities and problem solving can create frustration that leads to acting out. In addition, exposure to substances in utero can cause neurological damage that leads to a range of behavioral and mental health disorders.

If you are a pregnant woman, or a new mother who has used during pregnancy, it isn’t easy to face these things. You may be overwhelmed with guilt and fear for your child. While this is understandable, it’s important to realize that these things don’t serve your child. You can make choices, now, that will improve your baby’s outcome.

You can stop using, now. Get help from a drug treatment program. Go to meetings and talk to your healthcare provider. As scary as that might be, there are resources available to you that can help.

If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, eat nutritious foods, and get the best possible medical care. If your infant has shown signs of trouble, or even if he or she hasn’t, early intervention can make all the difference. Talk to your baby’s pediatrician about your concerns.

Getting Help When You’re Pregnant

If you need help quitting, that’s okay. Most of us do! Get that help, now. Enter a program. There are many programs that are set up just for Mom’s. Find other women who are mothers and recovering addicts. There is so much support out there for you, just reach out and accept it. Don’t let guilt and shame keep you from doing what you need to do to take care of your baby.

Rosanne Landes