For drug-addicted pregnant women, it can be hard to take the right course of action for themselves and their unborn child. Methadone maintenance is an option, yet many people see this as a dangerous and irresponsible step for pregnant women to take. However, well-managed methadone maintenance itself isn’t detrimental to childhood development. Rather, what negatively affects the child’s development is the in utero exposure to other addictive drugs; such as marijuana, cocaine, alcohol, and opiates.
Data from the Maine Infant Follow-Up Project shows that methadone maintenance itself isn’t associated with developmental problems in the first year of life (UMaine.edu). However, when pregnant women receive frequent dose increases, it may be correlated to delayed motor skills. This would suggest that it is extremely important for women to monitor their maintenance program so that they don’t experience withdrawals and put unnecessary stress on the fetus. Unfortunately, even with a well-monitored program, babies can still be born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), in which the baby has become addicted to methadone or other addictive drugs via the placenta during pregnancy (Lee). In these cases, babies may require medicine to treat their symptoms of withdrawal. There are additional risk factors with the women who make up the population on methadone maintenance: many of these mothers are low-income, victims of violence, with psychiatric diagnoses. As a result of these circumstances, many of these women are unable to obtain adequate pre-natal care or proper nutrition. All of these chaotic circumstances put stress on the fetus, and therefore can negatively affect childhood development.
Another small study in England shows that a large number of women who are on a methadone maintenance program also use illicit and addictive drugs while pregnant. The study showed that out of 56 mothers on a methadone program, 51% of the babies were exposed to other drugs in the womb (British Medical Journal). Of this percentage, 73% had been exposed to opiates, 70% to benzodiazepines, 59% to cannabinoids, 14% to amphetamines, and 7% to cocaine (British Medical Journal). When these drugs are used in utero, it can have severe consequences for fetal and childhood development. For example, babies who are exposed to amphetamines in the womb are likely to be born at a low birth weight or prematurely, as well as likely to experience learning disabilities later in life while babies who are exposed to drugs like heroin can be born prematurely, with breathing difficulties, hypoglycemia, and with bleeding in the brain (AmericanPregnancy.org). Using these kinds of dangerous and addictive drugs during pregnancy is more likely to cause serious disruptions in childhood development than a well-managed methadone maintenance program.
Of course, being on any addictive substance while pregnant isn’t the ideal. However, it is definitely the better choice when it comes to mothers who are seriously dependent on drugs when they find out they are pregnant. Methadone maintenance offers expecting mothers the opportunity to abstain from other, more harmful drugs in a way that doesn’t involve the physical and mental distress of withdrawals to affect the fetal development of their child. When these programs are closely monitored and well-managed, they do not present imminent danger to a child’s development. It is the woman’s responsibility to abstain from other drugs, which are likely to harm their child both in the womb and once they’re born. Of course, women should also be transparent with their doctors about the drugs they are on during pregnancy – including methadone – so that doctors can prepare a proper course of action for when the baby is born. When taking these things into consideration, it is easy to see that methadone maintenance programs are the best option for mothers who suffer from severe opiate addiction and who want the best for their child.
British Medical Journal. “Most Babies Born to Mothers On Methadone Exposed to Several Illicit Drugs in Womb.” 8 July 2013. ScienceDaily. Web. 11 July 2013.
“Doctoral Student Examines Long-term Effects of Methadone Treatment in Pregnancy.” 16 March 2012. UMaine.edu. Web. 11 July 2013.
Lee, Kimberly G. “Neonatal abstinence syndrom.” n.d. MedlinePlus. Web. 11 July 2013.
“Using Illegal Drugs during Pregnancy.” May 2011. AmericanPregnancy.org. Web. 11 July 2013.