Treating heroin use in pregnancy

When you are pregnant, treatment is aimed at avoiding withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms can be harmful for your baby. 

If you use methadone (or buprenorphine) with heroin or other downers, you run the risk of overdosing. This could cause you or your baby to die or to become very unwell.

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Methadone and buprenorphine

Methadone and buprenorphine are medications that are used to treat heroin use. They are safe for use in pregnancy because:

  • they stay in your body for a least 24 hours so only need to be taken once a day
  • if you are on the correct dose you will be less inclined to seek out other drugs
  • they create a stable environment in your body for your baby to grow
  • they reduce the risk of getting infections
  • you are less likely to have your baby too soon
  • your baby is less likely to suffer from withdrawal symptoms during pregnancy
  • they are not linked to malformations in the baby
  • it is safer for you to care for your baby after the birth if you are not drug affected.

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Withdrawal symptoms

To stop withdrawal in both you and your baby, the amount of methadone or buprenorphine is usually increased several times during the pregnancy. This is because you put on weight and your body changes.

If you have any withdrawal symptoms, tell your doctor or midwife. it is likely your baby is withdrawing too.

Signs of withdrawal in adults include:

  • sweating
  • vomiting
  • flu-like symptoms
  • feeling sick
  • tremors and jitteriness
  • trouble sleeping
  • depression and anxiety.

If you are experiencing these symptoms you need to see your doctor as soon as possible as your dose may need to be increased.

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When a newborn withdraws from drug use

If you have been using any drugs or alcohol during pregnancy, your baby may experience withdrawal after the birth.

When a newborn baby is withdrawing from drugs it is called neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS).

You will need to stay in hospital for five to seven days after your baby is born so your baby can be monitored for NAS.

When you use a drug during pregnancy, the drug is passed onto the baby through your blood and placenta. Just like adults, babies may become addicted to these drugs. After the baby is born, that drug is no longer available and the baby may show signs of withdrawal.

Depending on the drug the baby is withdrawing from, common signs are:

  • excessive crying, tremors and jitteriness
  • poor feeding, vomiting and swallowing
  • inability to settle and sleep
  • trouble with breathing.

If you are treated with methadone or buprenorphine during pregnancy, your baby may still experience withdrawal after birth. Infant withdrawal can be treated safely and effectively.


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