Pregnancy and Addiction… The System Is Broken, Not The Moms!

Dr. Robin Barnett

Say the words pregnancy and addiction, and the first response is often judgment and indignation, images of alcohol bottles alongside swollen bellies filling people’s minds. Sadly, it is this prevailing ideology that keeps increasing numbers of women pregnant and trapped in the throes of their addiction from having good choices for treatment…and a fighting chance to get clean for themselves and their babies.


Now let’s paint a slightly different picture. Andrea was never a drug user. She never touched marijuana or cocaine and only drank socially. And then she hurt her back at work and was prescribed OxyContin (a powerful opioid drug). Before Andrea realized it, she was hooked. When she found out she was pregnant, her mind raced. How would she function without her OxyContin? Would the drug hurt her baby? What now?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 99% of pregnant addicted women don’t take illicit versions of the drug like heroin. They were initially prescribed their drug of choice legally and legitimately by a doctor and then became physically and psychologically dependent on it.2

Still others long struggled with alcohol, tobacco, or illicit drug addiction prior to becoming pregnant, and the addiction proved too strong to overcome, resulting in babies born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) or other physical, mental, and emotional challenges.3

For opioid-addicted women, their newborn babies overwhelmingly come into the world with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS)—drug withdrawal symptoms in babies caused by exposure to addictive drugs in utero.1 The CDC reports that 99.6% of infants treated for NAS were exposed to opioid drugs in utero, further reinforcing what we now recognize as nationwide prescription opioid epidemic that is tragically carried forward in the newest generation.

A nurse at a Florida Neonatal Intensive Care Unit describes what babies with NAS experience: “[They] go through withdrawal symptoms…[t]they’re crampy, miserable. They sweat. They can have rapid breathing. Sometimes, they can even have seizures.”4

Yet we understand from the CDC that only 10% of mothers with babies treated for NAS were referred for addiction counseling or rehabilitation treatment, even after they tested positive for a substance during routine urine tests. Clearly, a tragic vacuum exists here in which education and treatment options rarely exist or are offered to these women. Worse, the primary options for drug-addicted pregnant women are currently jail or the streets.

So what can we—and should we—be doing for these women and their babies?

Education is key, and not just for drug-abusing women, but for all women of child-bearing ages. Increasing community resources in which women can learn about prescription drug addiction, how it affects babies in utero, and their treatment options lays a strong foundation upon which further intervention options may build.

Bringing together communities and mental health agencies to improve rehabilitation referral policies and drug addiction counseling tailored to pregnant women is a necessary follow-up to education. Going cold turkey on opioids during pregnancy is actually very dangerous to the developing fetus, making medically supervised medication assistance or detoxification necessary. Yet programs tailored to pregnant women addicted to opioids are few and far between.

So we have an enormous opportunity to serve our opioid-addicted women and their babies better by creating educational and treatment services, beginning within our own communities and expanding throughout the country. For more information, [contact info].


For a deeper dive into the solution and to find a true blueprint for dealing with addiction in the home, pickup Dr. Robin Barnett’s acclaimed new book, “Addict in the House: A No-Nonsense Family Guide Through Addiction and Recovery”, available where exceptional books are sold.

To learn more about Dr. Robin Barnett and her commitment to helping pregnant mothers get the help they need, see her latest project with WTVJ NBC6: