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What You Need To Know About Opioid Use During Pregnancy

August 24, 2021

Pregnancy, whether it is planned or not, is a life changing experience. It can also be frightening and stressful, especially for women who are also dealing with an opioid addiction. Trying to do the best thing for your baby can be incredibly difficult when feel unable to control other aspects of your life. As you decide your path forward, it is important to understand the potentially deadly consequences of continuing opioid use during pregnancy.

There are many risks associated with opioid use during pregnancy, particularly during later stages of pregnancy.

Complications from opioid use during pregnancy include:

  • Placental abruption and insufficiency
  • Premature rupture of membranes
  • Intra-amniotic infection (inflammation of fetal membranes)
  • Preterm labor or premature birth
  • Fetal growth restrictions
  • Birth defects
  • Preeclampsia
  • Miscarriage
  • Fetal death
  • Postpartum heavy bleeding

These complications are associated with both continued use of opioids and opioid withdrawal.

The continued use of opioids during your pregnancy can also lead to your baby experiencing slow or ineffective breath (respiratory depression) after birth. In conjunction with these breathing problems, babies can go through withdrawal symptoms because opioids are able to cross the placenta and enter the fetal nervous system. This is called Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal Syndrome (NOWS).

Signs of NOWS include:

  • Tremors
  • Jitteriness
  • Diarrhea
  • Irritability
  • High-pitched cries
  • Poor sleeping habits
  • Uncoordinated sucking reflexes

Uncoordinated sucking reflexes is extremely dangerous because babies are unable to feed. Infants experiencing NOWS generally are kept in neonatal units in hospitals under constant medical supervision as they are weaned off the opioids in their systems. This process can take weeks, if not months. Recent studies have also found links between developmental delays and speech and language impairment in children born with opioids in their systems.

If you are using opioids or are undergoing treatment during your pregnancy, you will likely have a team of specialists working with you to ensure the health and safety of you and your baby. These doctors may suggest frequent STI and other infectious disease testing, as well as screenings for depression and other mental health issues. Remember, your mental health is just as important as your physical health. You should have discussions with your medical team about any other substances, like tobacco or alcohol, you might also be using during your pregnancy. Your team will help you create a pain management plan for you to use during labor. They also may encourage you to breastfeed and continue to use an opioid substitution medication to help you maintain your recovery treatment plan.

If you are experiencing acute pain during your pregnancy, get help from your medical team to help alleviate your pain. They can prescribe alternative therapies such as exercise or physical and behavioral therapy. If your pain persists, they can also find a safe method of opioid pain relief. If you are struggling with an opioid addiction, they can prescribe an opioid substitution medication such as methadone or Subutex to be use in combination with therapy to help you manage and treat your addiction. 

Remember, there is no shame in seeking help to treat your addiction. It is one of the best things you can do for you and your baby.


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