by Mark Price, RN
Over the last decade, methamphetamine has become among the top three drugs requiring inpatient treatment among women of childbearing age. It is responsible for low BMI (Body Mass Index) in female users. This effect on a woman’s body can have profound implications during pregnancy. Methamphetamine is a powerful appetite suppressant. Lower maternal body weight is normally correlated with gestational complications.
Methamphetamine is a powerful vasoconstrictor (narrowing of blood vessels). It can cause a reduction in placental blood flow that will cause fetal hypoxia. The baby’s supply of oxygenated blood comes across the placental membrane. Without it, the development of the baby can be impaired.
To further exacerbate pregnancy issues, the use of methamphetamine usually accompanies abuse of other substances like marijuana, tobacco, alcohol and opioids. Abuse of other addictive substances, such as alcohol, can lead to defects like Fetal Alcohol Syndrome which is an irreversible condition. For example, a recent study of over 1 million pregnant women who were insured through Medicaid found that over one-fifth of the women (21.6%) filled a prescription for an opioid while they were pregnant.
In another study, researchers found that while the hospitalization ratio for cocaine abuse decreased 44% from 1998 to 2004, the hospitalization ratio for amphetamine abuse doubled during that time. Since then, methamphetamine use, including among pregnant women, has surged.
Some of the most common complications among “meth babies” are increased risks for neurodevelopmental problems, low birth weight, and small size for gestational development period. Meth babies can also experience fetal distress syndrome resulting from lack of oxygen that may cause long-term developmental delays and disabilities.
The dangers of using of this powerful illicit drug during pregnancy continue through delivery and beyond. Preterm birth rates are significantly higher among meth users. Placental abruption (a condition where the placenta detaches from the uterus) requires immediate medical attention and is common in meth-abusing mothers. There are also several cardiac anomalies that can occur in the children of addicted mothers. For instance, atrial septal defect (a hole in the main wall of the heart that separates the left and right atrium) is a recurring heart defect in babies of addicts. This can put the child at risk for stroke. They can have smaller head circumferences that inhibit proper brain growth.
After the baby is born, he or she often experiences drug withdrawal symptoms from being deprived of regular amounts of the drug passing through the placenta from the mother. Symptoms for the newborn can include trouble eating, insomnia or somnolence, poor muscle control or muscle rigidity, jitters, photosensitivity, and possible breathing issues. Withdrawal symptoms usually go away within a few weeks but can last for months. The baby may need to be admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit.
The effects of these drugs on a fetus are not completely identified because each baby is different. As followers of God, we fall back on what we know to be true. Psalm 139:14 says, “I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully
made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well”. We can’t prevent women from using drugs while they’re pregnant, but we can educate them and others about the dangers of this behavior. And we can continue to pray that their babies are under God’s protection.