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Can Taking Opioids During Pregnancy Cause Birth Defects?

Posted on 01/15/2019

There is always a certain level of risk associated with taking opioids. However, when a woman is pregnant and taking these drugs, those risks greatly increase for her unborn child. Babies born after being exposed to opioids in the womb may be born with certain defects. These may include spina bifida, congenital heart problems, gastroschisis, associated behavioral issues, preterm birth, and stillbirth.

Studies of the Use of Opioids During Pregnancy

Research on the use of opioids during pregnancy was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This study was performed in 2011 and examined data from the ongoing National Birth Defects Prevention Study. Researchers analyzed births from the year 1997 to 2005 and then conducted interviews with thousands of mothers of infants suffering from birth defects. They then spoke to mothers of infants born at the same time without birth defects and compared the results.

The mothers that took opioids during pregnancy, or for three months preceding the pregnancy, had a higher chance of having a baby born with birth defects. Opioids doubled the chances that a baby would be born with congenital heart defects. The most common of those seen in the study was hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a condition in which the left side of the heart is severely weakened.

Birth Defects and Long-Lasting Consequences Caused By Infant Exposure

Other birth defects seen commonly throughout the study were spina bifida, congenital glaucoma, and hydrocephaly. Gastroschisis, another birth defect commonly caused by opioids, was also seen. This is a condition in which an opening forms in the fetus’ abdominal wall. When this occurs, the baby’s intestines could be pushed through the opening. As they remain outside of the baby’s body, they are unprotected and could have life-threatening consequences for the baby.

Babies exposed to opioids in the womb have a lower chance of survival than those with no exposure. The risk of miscarriage and stillbirth are both increased when a mother has taken opioids during pregnancy, or just before.

In addition to the physical birth defects an infant may suffer after opioid exposure, there are longer-lasting consequences a child may suffer as well. Babies may experience uncoordinated sucking reflexes, which will cause problems while feeding. Later in life, they may continue to experience behavioral problems such as attention deficit disorders, which could cause them to struggle in school and put them behind their peers. Emotional problems later in life are also common when a child has been exposed to opioids in the womb.

Women Who Are Pregnant Should Speak With a Doctor About Opioid Usage

Opioids during pregnancy can have a significant effect on babies in the womb. They may be born with birth defects and then face other challenges later in life. Women who are pregnant, or planning on becoming pregnant, should always speak to their doctor if they are taking opioids. There are safer alternatives and together, the woman and her doctor can decide on the best and safest form of treatment for her and her unborn child.