Nearly 4 % of all pregnant women are users of illicit drugs during pregnancy. There are several effects that the use of opioids can have on the fetus during development, though it is difficult to test and study the exact mechanisms at work and exactly how the drug is affecting the fetus. Animal studies have been conducted on the subject, though it is difficult to extrapolate animal findings to humans as humans differ greatly in physiology. More recently, research has been done on the placentas of rhesus monkeys, as they are more similar to humans physiologically. It has been found that heroin, like morphine (used as a pain killer during birth), is transferred into the placenta very rapidly, and the drug exerts its effects on the fetus. Blood tests at birth have shown the infant’s blood levels to be 50% or even 100% of the mother’s drug level. Even with this knowledge, we still are far from understanding exactly how heroin affects a fetus in the womb.
During pregnancy the use of heroin can lead to poor fetal growth, premature delivery, and still birth. Premature rupture of the membranes also occurs, meaning that the bags of waters that hold the fetus break too soon causing premature birth. Diseases and infections related to the mother’s drug addiction, like venereal disease such as syphilis and hepatitis can be transmitted to the fetus. Using heroin also raises the baby’s risk of contracting the HIV virus if the mother used heroin intravenously. There is a minimum 4-5% chance that the baby will have a major birth defect, although it may not be evident right away.
Since the introduction of methadone programs, a drug used as a replacement for heroin, treatment of heroin addiction while pregnant has been controversial. Some are concerned with higher occurrence of complications and greater severity of withdrawal symptoms upon birth, while others support the treatment. If a mother stops using the drug “cold turkey,” the fetus will then experience withdrawal symptoms in the womb, with may cause wide swings in the baby’s blood level from intoxication to withdrawal, which often times leads to death and spontaneous abortion, premature birth, and other negative effects.
It is estimated that about 3,000 babies are born in New York City alone each year to addicted mothers. It is difficult to determine whether heroin alone is responsible for the harmful effects observed at birth and later in the child’s life. Mothers who use heroin are usually from a lower socio-economic status, and typically have other serious problems including malnutrition and possible exposure to other illegal drugs.
Babies born to mothers who have used heroin while they were pregnant have inherited their addiction, and upon birth must go through withdrawal. This is a painful process and includes symptoms like diarrhea, sweating, a higher-pitched cry, tremors and irritability. The babies are also very likely to have low birth weight and small head circumference.
Babies born with low birth weight have been shown to have many difficulties later in life:
- Language, visuomotor, and other learning disabilities
- Behavior problems
- Children are more likely to be rejected by peers
- Performance in school may suffer and the children may need special education courses
If you become pregnant while addicted to opioids, the consequences can be severe, but there is help available! Contact us today, we are here to listen and help you find the help you need to get well.