Pregnancy is one of the most intimate human experiences—the mother, bound to another growing human being, nurtures her child as it prepares to make its way into the world. Jeanne Berkowitz, then a mother-to-be, learned of the intimacy of this connection when she visited a massage therapist who regularly worked with pregnant women. “She told me that it was important to massage my belly often to introduce the baby to human touch and to the world outside the womb,” she said. “We can often feel him respond by kicking back and changing positions.”
But the strength of this unique bond between mothers and their unborn babies also opens the door to the possibility of passing on harmful substances to the child as well, as the recent opioid epidemic illustrates all too clearly. If you’re dependent and expecting, you’re far from alone—opioids are highly addictive, with between 26.4 million and 36 million people estimated to be abusing them around the world. Yet there is also hope for recovery—there are treatment options out there which can help you get clean before and after pregnancy, both for your own sake and that of your child.
Addressing Your Fears
Every 20 minutes, a baby is born experiencing drug withdrawals (also referred to as neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS). Often born from mothers who have been on medications such as Percocet or OxyContin, these babies enter the world in pain and facing potentially life-threatening obstacles. It’s a scary situation, one that catches some mothers by surprise. Many have been taking painkillers for long periods of time, unaware of their addictive potential and the fact that they can lead to health risks for their baby such as fever, seizures, and sleep problems.
If you’re pregnant now and reading this, your first instinct might be to try and avoid this outcome by quitting on the spot in order to cleanse yourself and your baby of the drugs you’ve been taking. But as counterintuitive as it is, suddenly stopping these medications while pregnant can cause dangerous side effects, including triggering seizures in utero.
It’s a difficult situation to be in, realizing that your addiction may be harming your child, while at the same time fearing what might happen if you suddenly stop using. You may also find yourself doubting your capabilities as a mother due to your addiction—particularly if you’re a first timer—which adds to your growing sense of fear and may tempt you further to keep using simply as a way to cope with your stress. It’s a vicious cycle—but one that many mothers have faced and overcome, and you can, too.
Addiction is attached to a great deal of stigma, and it’s highly likely that this stigma may be keeping you from opening up about fears related to your addiction and being a mother. It’s for this reason that it is so necessary for you to detox in a safe, non-judgmental environment where you can get clean while learning adaptive coping strategies for dealing with the stresses of being a mother, both during and after withdrawal.
Looking Past Shame
Despite the stigmas surrounding it, addiction is not something to be ashamed of, something to drive your fear and dissuade you from seeking treatment—it’s a disease of the brain that should be viewed with compassion by both you and the people that you surround yourself with. Remember: you are not alone. Many mothers have been in the same situation as you are now, and by seeking treatment, they received the detox necessary to safely wean themselves off opioids at a pace that ensured the safe delivery of their baby.
Even if you’re too close to delivery to consider a standard detoxification program, there’s no need to panic. After the birth of your child, you’ll be transferred into the hands of addiction specialists who will help you manage your baby’s withdrawal and your addiction following pregnancy. Whether this is done in the context of an outpatient treatment or comprehensive programs that span up to 90 days, you have many options available to you that can give you the support that you need to sustain the mental and physical health of you and your baby.
Katy Yeager, a former addict whose baby was born with opioid withdrawals, took this route, realizing that getting clean and embarking on the journey to recovery was a courageous choice that benefitted her baby, not one to be ashamed of. “It was stressful … I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about getting high,” she said. “But then I realized how far I had come and where I wanted to go, and that if I did that, Kennedy could be sent to a foster home, and anything could happen to her there.” It might not have been an easy path to take, but it was one that was necessary, both for overcoming her own addiction and for protecting the health of her baby.
Recovery After Detoxification
Detoxification from opioids while pregnant can be done without harming your baby—in particular, buprenorphine-based treatments have been shown to be effective for weaning pregnant women off of opioids gradually, without any adverse effects on the baby following birth.
However, for the long-term health of both you and your child, it’s important to ensure that you remain in treatment even after this period so that you can benefit from a professional support network made up of psychiatrists and therapists. Research supports this importance, with data showing that NAS can still occur after detoxification, but it is much less likely when you participate in behavioral health programs following your detoxification period.
These programs, which include residential treatment and the support networks mentioned above, are necessary to address the protracted withdrawal effects that you might feel after detoxing, including depression, low energy levels, and difficulty concentrating. Without learning how to cope with these effects, your baby could suffer from them too, in addition to possibly experiencing NAS.
Even after using behavioral health programs, continued treatment and follow-up are important because recovery isn’t something with a set timeline. Just like Katy, you may struggle with your addiction long after your baby is born. You might feel the effects of protracted withdrawal for months afterward, and it may take a while before you begin to feel like yourself again. And of course, caring for a new baby can be stressful—especially if you’re new to it—and it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking of using as a way to deal with the bad days.
It’s important to remember that temporary relief isn’t worth the risk of relapse—especially after you’ve worked so hard to overcome withdrawal at least once already. With a strong support network, however, you will always have a lifeline to latch onto when you feel close to slipping, a reminder of why you need to stay sober—to provide a positive role model for your child, live life to the fullest, and to live free from the shame and guilt that used to accompany your addiction.
The pressures of being responsible for the life of another human being is one that only a parent can understand—factoring addiction into the mix only further compounds the stress. It’s a complicated situation, one that can be quite difficult to handle without the right support and coping strategies. Just remember, there is help out there in the form of residential treatment programs built upon the people and therapies needed to help you get clean and stick to a recovery plan designed to ensure that both you and your child thrive. Embarking on the journey to overcome your opioid addiction is a courageous choice—one that shouldn’t be defined by shame or guilt, but by the pride that comes from taking care of your future.
Alta Mira offers comprehensive addiction rehabilitation for those looking to break free from their opioid addiction. If you or a loved one is suffering from addiction during or after pregnancy, contact us today to learn more about recovering in a way that puts the health and safety of mother and child first and foremost.
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