If a pregnant woman is using heroin, the drug doesn’t just affect her.
It also affects her unborn child. This makes it crucial for expectant mothers to seek addiction treatment.
When an expectant mother uses heroin, the drug enters her bloodstream. It rapidly passes through the placenta into the bloodstream of the unborn baby. According to Medicines in Pregnancy, once in the baby’s bloodstream the drug “reaches the baby’s heart, brain, and other organs, and has been shown to affect the breathing movements and heart rate of a baby in the womb.”
Simply put, when a pregnant woman uses heroin, so does her baby. When she gets high, so does the baby. The unborn child becomes dependent on the drug, along with its mother.
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome
When a fetus, like its mother, is dependent on heroin, there is a high risk of the baby developing Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, also known as NAS. When the baby is born, he or she is dependent on heroin and experiences withdrawal symptoms because the drug use was abruptly stopped upon birth.
The symptoms of NAS are both physical and behavioral. The baby may gain weight slowly, cry excessively in a high-pitched cry, experience sleep disturbances, or have seizures that could result in death.
Additional symptoms of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome include:
- Fevers and sweating
- Irritability and restlessness
- Difficulty breastfeeding
- Blotchy or mottled skin
A baby with NAS generally needs to be hospitalized and treated with medication to relieve the symptoms of addiction. Babies are often given morphine or methadone, which is tapered off until the heroin is out of their system.
Additional Pregnancy Complications for the Fetus
Using heroin during pregnancy can lead to many other problems for the unborn child. According to the American Pregnancy Association, the baby could experience bleeding in the brain, impaired function of the lungs, or hypoglycemia.
Other possible complications include:
- Birth defects – These are conditions that affect one or more parts of the body and how the brain and body function. They are present at birth and can have lifelong consequences.
- Placental abruption – Placental abruption can be life threatening for both the unborn child and the mother. This occurs when the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus before birth. The placenta supplies the baby with oxygen and nutrients. If it detaches, the baby is left without an oxygen and nutritional supply. The mother often has heavy bleeding when placental abruption occurs.
- Low Birth Weight – Infants born to women addicted to heroin weigh about one-fourth less than average babies. Newborns that weigh less than 5 pounds 8 ounces at birth typically have problems such as blindness, heart failure, and impaired intestinal functioning. An extremely low birth weight can result in death.
- Stillbirth – If a baby dies in the womb after 20 weeks of pregnancy, it is called a stillbirth.
- Premature birth – A baby born too early can have many mental and physical problems.
- Sudden Infant Death Syndrome – SIDS occurs when a baby under the age of one suddenly dies without any explanation.
Long-Term Effects of Heroin Abuse on the Developing Child
Although there is only a small amount of documented work on the long-term effects of heroin abuse on the developing child, the following characteristics frequently occur:
- Difficulties with concentration, focus, and attention
- Behavioral disorders and control
- Motor control
- Lack of social inhibition
Pregnancy Complications for the Mother
Complications from pregnancy often develop because of poor nutrition or poor prenatal care. Some of these possible complications include respiratory failure, hemorrhaging, and preeclampsia. These expectant mothers have higher rates of infection and are more likely to put themselves in dangerous situations or do self-harm.
Pregnant women that use heroin are less likely to take good care of themselves and often suffer from depression, poor nutrition, or malnutrition. Their drug use puts them at a higher risk for developing serious health conditions during their pregnancy such as heart disease, diabetes, pneumonia, anemia, and hepatitis.
Stopping Cold Turkey
Abruptly stopping heroin during pregnancy can result in the death of the baby. Because the baby is addicted to the drug too, he or she may not live through the withdrawal process. The baby will suffer through hyperactivity, then death will occur due to oxygen deprivation.
Accidental Overdose During Pregnancy
An accidental overdose can result in the death of the mother, spontaneous abortion of the fetus, or can cause the baby to die shortly after birth. Taking too much heroin, or heroin that is mixed with another substance or drug, can cause the mother and baby to become poisoned or cause the death of both mother and child.
Treatment Is Vital
The consequences of heroin use during pregnancy can be devastating, but help is available. If you are an expectant mother struggling with heroin addiction, the best way to protect your baby is to seek addiction treatment as soon as possible.