Addicted and Pregnant: Finding Help

Addicted and Pregnant: Finding Help

Addicted and Pregnant: Finding Help

Addicted and Pregnant: Finding HelpDrug use during pregnancy is a serious and challenging health concern for both expecting mothers and the children who are born after exposure to drugs in utero. It can be a major challenge to convince pregnant women to seek treatment for drug addiction and another challenge to find appropriate treatment for them once they make the decision to begin their recovery. The treatment itself is also complicated by concerns for the expecting mother’s health and the development of the fetus. 

Finding the strength and motivation to seek treatment for addiction is always difficult. Pregnant women have an added incentive to get clean, but many of them also have an added fear. They worry that if they tell their doctor about their addiction, they will lose custody of their child.

Treatment also has its complications, because abstinence and withdrawal can put the fetus at risk. As a result, most pregnant women are treated with methadone or buprenorphine to allow them to detox from the more dangerous drug without triggering withdrawal. Among other risks, withdrawal caused by going “cold turkey” can cause a miscarriage or the onset of early labor.

Benefits of Proactively Seeking Treatment

Seeking early treatment can greatly improve a pregnant women’s health by the time she gives birth, and reduce the likelihood that her child will suffer serious consequences due to neonatal abstinence syndrome. There may still be withdrawal symptoms for both mother and child after delivery from the use of therapeutic drugs.

Women who seek treatment on their own also have a much better chance of maintaining custody of their children than women whose drug use is exposed through testing or being caught in possession. Many hospitals are required to test newborns and/or new mothers for exposure to drugs, and when drug use is found, the odds of immediate temporary custody loss are high. However, custody only becomes an issue after the child is born. Women who have demonstrated a commitment to recovery by the time they deliver greatly reduce the chances that anyone will consider them an unfit parent or a danger to their children.

Fear of Legal Consequences

The fears that many pregnant women have about revealing their drug use are not entirely unfounded. In Tennessee, women who use drugs while pregnant can be criminally charged for harm done to their infants beginning July 1. Various charges in other states that have been brought against women for prenatal drug use include delivering drugs to a minor, child abuse and even assault with a deadly weapon.

Child welfare laws that make prenatal drug use a civil rather than criminal matter are more common. And there are cases in which children have been placed temporarily or permanently in foster care because of their mothers’ drug use. Nevertheless, women who enter treatment early in their pregnancy and remain committed can benefit from the advocacy of their various care providers in the event that their custody is ever challenged.

The Struggle to Find Treatment

Society is harshly critical of women who use drugs during pregnancy, and any healthcare professional would agree that pregnant women suffering from addiction should get treatment immediately. So why is it so challenging for many pregnant women who do make the decision to get treatment to actually find a facility that will treat them?

An unfortunate number of pregnant women who apply for addiction treatment find themselves turned away or referred elsewhere. Some treatment facilities take a total abstinence approach and are unwilling to make exceptions, in spite of the risks involved in treating pregnant women without medication. These facilities often refuse to treat pregnant women outright, not wanting to deal with the potential for serious medical consequences. Other treatment facilities may not provide options for therapy through medication and force women who have a preference for either methadone or buprenorphine to look elsewhere.

This process can delay treatment for many women who want to begin their recovery as quickly as possible. Some women even give up on finding treatment; many feel frustrated by being turned away, struggle to find time or transportation to visit multiple places looking for a facility that will accept them, or feel frightened or humiliated by information these facilities give them.

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