Maternal Substance Abuse: The Dangers of Parental Addiction and Empowering Mothers to Embrace Recovery

Many women struggle with substance and alcohol abuse with 8.4 million having misused prescription drugs, 19.5 million having used illicit drugs, and 4% struggling with alcohol use disorder. 

Of women struggling with substance abuse, many are mothers. About 1 in 8 children live in households with at least one parent with a substance use disorder (SUD). Additionally, about 1 in 10 children live in households with at least one parent with an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

A treatable disease, addiction can cause feelings of shame, especially for mothers as societal narratives hold them as the primary caregivers to their children. The pressure to be nurturers when struggling with addiction may cause women to experience greater shame around their condition, encourage them to keep their substance abuse secret, and further trigger their urge to use substances.


Termed maternal substance abuse, the use of alcohol or drugs during pregnancy can be dangerous for mothers and their babies. Alcohol, tobacco, and cannabis are the substances most frequently used during pregnancy. Opioid abuse during pregnancy is also on the rise with opioid use disorder rates at delivery more than quadrupling between 1999–2014.

Pregnancy risks of maternal substance abuse include:

  • Miscarriage
  • Seizures
  • High blood pressure  
  • Stillbirth

Babies born to mothers with SUDs typically display symptoms of withdrawal, a condition called neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), due to the babies’ dependence on substances used by the mothers. 

Following birth, drugs and alcohol can carry serious health consequences and greatly impede the child’s development.

In babies, maternal substance abuse can cause:

  • Birth defects
  • Low birth weight
  • Premature birth
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)

Alcohol Use During Pregnancy

Among pregnant women, 15% use alcohol and 4% engage in binge drinking during pregnancy. 

In babies, the use of alcohol during pregnancy can cause: 

  • Alcohol-related birth defects, including issues with the baby’s, heart, kidneys, bones, and hearing
  • Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorders, including intellectual disabilities and challenges with behavior and learning
  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), which may manifest as:
    • Abnormal facial features
    • Challenges with attention, coordination, memory, reasoning, and judgment skills
    • Learning disabilities
    • Low body weight
    • Small head size
    • Shorter than average height
    • Speech and language delays
    • Problems with vision, hearing, heart, kidneys, or bones

Tobacco Use During Pregnancy

Tobacco products include cigarettes and alternative tobacco products such as vape pens. Fifteen percent of pregnant women use tobacco. 

Tobacco use during pregnancy increases the risk of:

  • Spontaneous pregnancy loss
  • Placental abruption
  • Preterm premature rupture of membranes
  • Placenta previa
  • Preterm labor and delivery
  • Low birth weight
  • Ectopic pregnancy

Cigarette smoking while pregnant is also associated with consequences for the child after birth, including:

  • Asthma
  • Childhood obesity
  • Infantile colic

Cannabis Use During Pregnancy

Approximately 7% of pregnant women use cannabis during their prenatal period. Research is lacking on the impacts of prenatal cannabis use, but evidence has associated health and developmental consequences with cannabis use during pregnancy.

Opioid Use During Pregnancy

Opioid use is present in approximately 3% of pregnancies. In 2014, a baby was born with neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS) in the United States every 15 minutes.

Opioid use during pregnancy increases the risk of:

  • Preterm birth
  • Stillbirth
  • Maternal mortality

For babies, exposure to opioids in the womb is associated with: 

  • Low birth weight
  • Congenital heart defects
  • Neural tube defects
  • Clubfoot
  • NOWS


Disrupting family roles, relationships, and finances, parental SUDs can greatly impact family life. SUDs can be all-consuming and leave little time, resources, and energy for parents to nurture their children. Because the family unit is the foundation for children’s development, parental addiction can be detrimental to children. 

Compared to children whose parents don’t struggle with substance abuse, children whose parents do have an SUD are more likely to face educational, social, and family challenges. Evidence also shows that between one-third and two-thirds of child maltreatment cases involve substance use. Children of individuals with substance abuse disorder (SUD) also face an increased risk of developing an SUD themselves.


Like others who struggle with substance abuse, mothers may feel helpless, fear asking for help, and be unsure about how to quit using. An illness with biological and environmental driving factors, addiction has many causes that are out of the affected individual’s control and require clinical attention to help address. Often in women, SUDs coincide with unresolved trauma, self-esteem struggles, pressure, and mental health conditions. Through addiction treatment, mothers can heal themselves, developing powerful coping strategies, self-care practices, and a strong sense of self-compassion so they can live their lives purposefully, confidently, and joyfully in sobriety. 


Wasatch Crest offers addiction treatment led by specialists who’ve faced addiction and created fulfilling lives in recovery. Located in Utah’s Wasatch Mountain Range, our seven-acre alpine campus offers a rejuvenating retreat from the stress of everyday life and provides a safe space for healing from addiction. To learn more about our residential addiction treatment program and women’s transitional living program, reach out.  

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