Detox During
Pregnancy: A Guide

Detox During Pregnancy:
A Guide

It’s well-established that alcohol and drug abuse during pregnancy leads to negative medical and developmental consequences for a baby. Women who are dependent on drugs or alcohol can safely detox during pregnancy with the help of a quality detox program.

What Prevents Women from
Getting Help with Detox?

What Prevents Women from Getting Help with Detox?

Unfortunately, a number of barriers may prevent pregnant women from seeking the help they need to end their dependence, according to a study published in the journal Health and Justice. 1 The study found that many women are afraid of possible consequences for being pregnant and abusing substances, and they may resist seeking treatment for fear of these repercussions. Across the country, laws are on the books or in the works criminalizing substance abuse during pregnancy. Some of the women in the study were afraid of going to jail or losing custody of their newborns and older children and delayed seeking treatment. Others, afraid of detection, avoided prenatal medical appointments, putting mother and child at further risk.

The truth is, seeking help for a substance use disorder is the best thing you can do for yourself and your child. Doing so will improve your and your baby’s health, wellness and quality of life.

Detox is the first step in getting help for an addiction. Detox during pregnancy is the process of allowing all traces of a substance to leave your body so that brain function can begin to return to normal and end the dependence on drugs or alcohol.

The Difference Between
Dependence and Addiction​

The Difference Between Dependence and Addiction

While the terms “dependence” and “addiction” are often used interchangeably, they’re not the same thing, although they typically occur together.

Dependence

Dependence is characterized by withdrawal symptoms that set in when you stop using drugs or alcohol suddenly. Dependence develops as a result of changes in the brain’s chemical function as it tries to compensate for heavy substance abuse. For example, alcohol increases the activity of the neurotransmitter GABA, associated with relaxation, and reduces the activity of the neurotransmitter glutamate, which is responsible for feelings of excitability.

With heavy alcohol abuse, the brain attempts to maintain normal function by reducing the activity of GABA and increasing the activity of glutamate. This attempt at normalization of brain function results in tolerance, which means that it takes increasingly larger doses of drugs or alcohol to get the desired effect. But as you take more, your brain continues to compensate, and at some point, brain function may shift so that it now operates more comfortably when drugs or alcohol are present than when they’re not. Then, when you suddenly stop using, normal neurotransmitter function rebounds, and this causes physical withdrawal symptoms.

Addiction

Addiction is characterized by compulsive drug or alcohol abuse despite the negative consequences it causes. People struggling with and addiction will continue to use even when it’s causing problems in relationships, finances or physical and mental health. Even though they may want to quit or try to quit, they may find that they can’t.

Addiction results from brain changes related to the learning, memory, and reward systems in the brain. All psychoactive substances cause a spike in dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. The brain begins to associate the drug with pleasure, and environmental cues that are present when you use become triggers that cause intense cravings. Once an addiction develops, ending it almost always requires professional help.

Why Medical Detox During Pregnancy
is Essential for Successful Recovery

Why Medical Detox During Pregnancy is Essential for Successful Recovery

Many people who try to detox on their own don’t know how to handle the sometimes excruciating withdrawal symptoms, leading to relapse. Even in cases of a successful independent detox, the risk of relapse is very high without professional help. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, good intentions and willpower are not enough to end an addiction for the long-term.

What is Medical Detox During Pregnancy?

Medical detox is supervised by medical and mental health professionals. Medical detox during pregnancy involves medications that are used to help reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms and shorten the time it takes to detox. Many of the medications used during medical detox, including methadone for opioid dependence, can be safely taken while pregnant.

Medical detox is the first order of business for treating a substance use disorder. A variety of assessments are used during detox to help care providers identify the severity of the addiction and dependence and any problems that need to be addressed, such as homelessness, dysfunctional relationships, co-occurring mental illnesses and, in the case of pregnant women, the need for prenatal care and other services. This information is used to develop a comprehensive treatment plan that will help end the addiction for good.

High-quality detox programs typically offer complementary therapies like restorative yoga or massage therapy to reduce stress, promote feelings of wellbeing and increase retention in detox during pregnancy. Traditional therapies like motivational interviewing are used to help you identify your own intrinsic motivations for wanting to end an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

Detox: Only One Part of Recovery

Detox: Only One Part of Recovery

Detox during pregnancy ends the physical dependence on drugs or alcohol, but it does very little to address the addiction. Addiction is far more complex than dependence, and long-term recovery usually requires professional help.

Addiction almost always has underlying causes that must be addressed for successful recovery. These often include chronic stress, a history of trauma or a mental illness like anxiety or depression. In order to end addiction, these issues must be addressed. Additionally, addiction causes changes in thought and behavior patterns, which often perpetuate the addiction. Identifying these dysfunctional patterns of thought and behavior and learning to think and behave in healthier ways is a major focus in treatment.

Addiction often leads to serious problems, such as dysfunction in the family system, employment problems, financial troubles, medical and mental health issues, and legal problems often occur with addiction. In some cases, such problems occurred before the addiction but were made worse by drugs or alcohol.

All of the underlying issues and life problems associated with an addiction are addressed through a variety of therapies and interventions. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a holistic treatment program that uses a variety of traditional and complementary therapies offers the best possible outcomes of treatment.3

Traditional therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy and complementary therapies like art therapy help individuals in treatment:

  • Identify and change self-destructive thought and behavior patterns.
  • Address the underlying causes of the addiction.
  • Develop a toolkit of skills and strategies to cope with stress, negative emotions, cravings and other relapse triggers.
  • Repair damaged relationships and develop healthy communication skills.
  • Address any mental illnesses that co-occur with the addiction.
  • Restore function to all life domains.

Other services during treatment may include educational or vocational assistance, legal help, parenting and life skills classes, family counseling and help finding safe housing.

Detox During Pregnancy to
Start Recovery​

Detox During Pregnancy to Start Recovery

Once you enter detox, you’re on the road to recovery. Staying in detox for its duration and following it up with a high-quality treatment program helps ensure successful recovery for the long-term. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, treatment works for most people who engage with their treatment plan and stay in treatment for an adequate period of time.4

If you have a drug or alcohol addiction and are expecting, a medical detox and treatment program can help you end addiction for good, and lead to a happier, healthier future and higher quality of life for you and your child.