When a pregnant woman uses heroin, the drug can pass through the placenta to the baby in the womb.
The effects of heroin on a baby in the womb can be severe and include birth defects, miscarriage, neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), and death.
If a woman who uses heroin becomes pregnant, it’s important that she tell her doctor, so that the best and safest treatments for her and her baby can be used.
Quitting heroin during pregnancy can help to reduce certain risks and dangers of using heroin while pregnant. Comprehensive addiction treatment for pregnant women typically uses medications to help a woman safely withdrawal from heroin.
Heroin And Pregnancy
Heroin is highly addictive. Without professional help, heroin addiction can be very hard to overcome.
Fortunately, with the right combination of treatments and compassionate support, sobriety is possible for pregnant women who are struggling with heroin addiction.
Women who used heroin before they got pregnant may struggle to quit once they become pregnant. Others may not realize they’re pregnant while they’re using the drug.
Further, heroin use can cause irregular menstrual cycles or missed periods. Because of this, some women who use heroin on a chronic basis may believe they’re infertile. This could lead them to have unprotected sex that ends up in a pregnancy.
No matter the reason, heroin use during pregnancy can be highly dangerous for both the mother and her unborn child.
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Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) From Heroin
One of the greatest and most serious effects of heroin on a baby is neonatal abstinence syndrome. Neonatal abstinence syndrome occurs when a baby is born dependent on a drug, such as heroin.
Though neonatal abstinence syndrome can be caused by other drugs, such as benzodiazepines, NAS from opioid drugs like heroin can be particularly hard on a baby.
When NAS is caused by an opioid drug, such as heroin, it’s also referred to as neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS).
It’s estimated that 48 to 94 percent of newborns born to women who use heroin while pregnant develop neonatal abstinence syndrome.
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Causes
If heroin is used roughly a week before a woman delivers, the newborn will be born dependent on the drug. Even though they’re dependent, the baby will not be born addicted to heroin.
When a baby is born dependent on opioids and the umbilical cord is cut, the supply of heroin from the mother goes away. When the newborn suddenly stops receiving heroin, withdrawal symptoms otherwise known as NAS will likely set in.
The length and severity of neonatal abstinence syndrome depends on:
- how long the mother used heroin for.
- how much heroin was used.
- if the baby was premature or born full-term.
- how well the mother’s body breaks down and clears heroin from her system.
If a mother uses other drugs, including other opioids, the intensity and duration of NAS may change.
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Symptoms
Symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome typically begin one to three days after a baby is born, however, they may take up to 10 days to appear.
Babies with NAS can still have drugs in their system when they’re born. Neonatal abstinence syndrome can cause a baby to experience painful and even dangerous withdrawal symptoms shortly after they’re born.
Some symptoms of NAS, such as diarrhea, difficulty sleeping, sweating, and vomiting, resemble heroin withdrawal symptoms in adults. Others, like excessive crying or difficulty feeding, are specific to babies.
Symptoms of a baby with heroin neonatal abstinence syndrome include:
- breathing problems
- high-pitched crying
- slow weight gain
In the most severe of cases, neonatal abstinence syndrome could cause seizures or death.
Neonatal abstinence syndrome can also increase the risk of jaundice. Because of these and other complications, a baby with NAS will likely need specialized medical care.
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Treatment
Because NAS can take a week or more to appear, a baby who is at risk will likely be monitored for up to one week in a hospital. In severe cases, a baby may need a longer hospital stay or need to stay in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU).
Infants with neonatal abstinence syndrome are frequently treated with medications that help them safely withdrawal, such as a morphine taper. Research has also found that buprenorphine combined with naloxone could be a beneficial treatment at this time.
Research also suggests that breastfeeding, swaddling, and rooming-in, or when the newborn stays in the room with the mother after birth, may decrease the severity of NAS symptoms.
Additional Dangers And Side Effects Of Using Heroin While Pregnant
If a pregnant woman quits heroin cold turkey, or without gradually tapering off opioids, her baby could die. Using heroin while pregnant may also cause miscarriage or stillbirth.
The risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is higher in babies who are exposed to heroin during pregnancy as well.
Taking opioids like heroin during pregnancy can also cause birth defects of the brain, spinal cord, or spine. It may also result in heart defects or a birth defect in the newborn’s abdomen called gastroschisis.
Additional dangers and side effects of heroin use during pregnancy include:
- fetal convulsions
- low birth weight
- placental abruption
- premature birth (preterm delivery)
- stunted growth
Pregnant women who use heroin may become malnourished or receive inadequate prenatal care, states that could jeopardize their baby’s health and wellness even more.
Heroin use can increase the risk of a woman contracting HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C. A woman who is HIV positive could transmit the virus to their baby during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding.
Women who are addicted to heroin face other dangers that can harm their unborn or newborn baby as well, including incarceration and violence.
If the mother doesn’t get the help she needs to get sober, the dangers of using heroin while breastfeeding could continue to jeopardize a child’s health and safety.
Drug Rehab For Pregnant Women
Specialized addiction treatment programs for pregnant women provide comprehensive prenatal care and treatment for addiction. Due to the many needs of an addicted pregnant woman, an inpatient drug rehab program for heroin may be recommended.
Treatment typically combines medications with behavioral therapies. Medications like buprenorphine can help a woman safely taper off of heroin, so that both her and her baby are as safe as possible.
Behavioral therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, can help a woman build coping skills and healthier behaviors that support long-term sobriety.
Contact Vertava Health now for more resources on heroin addiction and pregnancy.