If a pregnant woman is addicted to drugs or alcohol, she shouldn't quit cold turkey. It may be a natural, knee-jerk reaction, but it could be dangerous for her baby. The sudden withdrawal could cause in-utero seizures or result in miscarriage [source: Goodnough]. Instead, she should seek professional help right away so her treatment can begin safely.
She can expect to be methodically weaned off the addictive substance or given an alternative drug that will act as a crutch during the withdrawal process. For example, the clinically supervised withdrawal of pregnant users of opiates (like heroin or oxycodone) may involve steadily decreasing doses of methadone or buprenorphine, which are synthetic drugs used as less addictive substitutes [source: Drugs.com]. Slowly cutting the dosage results in less severe withdrawal symptoms for both mom and baby [source: National Institute on Drug Abuse]. Unfortunately, even legally prescribed withdrawal drugs like methadone have been linked to birth defects, such as congenital heart problems, but a health care provider will help the mother choose the best treatment for herself and her baby [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].
Facilitating a physical withdrawal is an important element of the treatment process, but it's only part of the equation. A recovering addict also needs to learn a new way of life. Outpatient recovery programs include daily or weekly meetings, but participants must have a high level of internal motivation to succeed.
Inpatient treatment may be a more effective option, especially for pregnant women in the throes of addiction who only have a few weeks left to safeguard their babies' development. Inpatient rehabilitation programs monitor abstinence from drugs or alcohol closely and offer an abrupt break from potential triggers, like certain social situations, people or stressors that could cause a relapse during those first fragile weeks of recovery [source: McCarthy].
Weeks-long supervised treatment also increases the odds that the recovering addict will get to the root of the problem. Sometimes, addiction stems from a failed attempt to self-regulate a mental health disorder. Studies show that pregnant women with mood or anxiety disorders are more likely to use drugs or alcohol to quell the symptoms, and that the use of illegal substances has a cyclical effect because it causes lingering mood and anxiety issues [source: National Institute on Drug Abuse].
If an expecting mother has undiagnosed depression, she may be prescribed antidepressants as she works to become clean and sober. Although some antidepressants pose a risk to her unborn baby, others are considered safe during pregnancy. For example, some selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Zoloft and Prozac, have been linked to fetal heart and lung defects but are still considered for pregnant women because the risk of these defects is relatively low. Other antidepressants, such as Wellbutrin, have not been shown to damage a baby's development [source: Mayo Clinic].
A health care provider will need to understand the woman's medical history and mental state thoroughly to weigh the risks of potential treatments versus the benefits.
On the next page, find out what a mother in recovery can do to keep getting better.