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The effects of methadone treatment during pregnancy

Methadone and pregnancy: stop treatment or not?

Since 1998, the National Institutes of Health has recommended methadone maintenance as the standard of care for the opioid-dependent pregnant woman. We now have forty years of studies of opioid-dependent pregnant women show that both baby and mother do best if the mother is started and kept on methadone.

Many pregnant women, addicted to opioids, are told by well-meaning friends and family to do a dangerous thing during pregnancy. They are told to stop taking opioids while pregnant. Even pregnant patients on methadone through a treatment center are told by family to, Get off that stuff, not realizing stopping methadone during pregnancy can cause harm.

Opioid withdrawal usually won’t kill a healthy adult, though it can make him very sick. But opioid withdrawal can cause serious harm to the developing fetus, up to and including death, from miscarriage or pre-term labor.  Maternal withdrawal from opioids causes increased fetal movement and increased oxygen consumption, potentially causing oxygen deprivation. Opioid withdrawal during pregnancy is associated with low birth weight and increased medical complications for both mother and child.

Pregnancy and methadone : The benefits of methadone treatment

Besides preventing withdrawal, methadone treats the mom’s opioid addiction. About 70% of pregnant opioid addicts will relapse back to illicit opioid use (heroin or pain pills not prescribed to them) if they are taken off methadone. We also know that women enrolled in a methadone treatment program are much more likely to get prenatal care, and babies born to moms on methadone have higher birth weights than mothers in active addiction. If the mother is dosed with methadone, the baby is much less likely to be exposed to infectious agents like HIV and hepatitis from shared needle use. The baby also won’t be exposed to adulterants that can cause fetal damage, if heroin is being used.

Therefore, the standard of care for opioid-addicted pregnant women is stabilization with methadone throughout the pregnancy, until delivery. And now, since the results of a new study have just been released, we can also recommend buprenorphine as an appropriate medication to stabilize the mother.

Consequences of baby born addicted to drugs – withdrawal

Certainly, the worst thing that can happen with a pregnant woman on methadone is the occurrence of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). This is the term for opioid withdrawal symptoms seen in a newborn.  Any opioid taken regularly during pregnancy can cause NAS. The new infant can have gastrointestinal symptoms and neurologic symptoms that need treatment with gradually reduced doses of opioid, usually a tincture of morphine solution. This can occur as quickly as within twenty-four hours, if the mother is using a short-acting opioid like heroin, or up to five days later, when the mother is taking methadone.

As bad as NAS is, it can be treated. No one wants to see an infant have withdrawal, but it’s still better than the alternatives: very premature infants needing months on intensive care, fetal loss, or low birth weight babies. Even in the face of the possible complication of NAS, the baby is likely to be healthier, as is the mother.

Methadone vs Subutex: Is Subutex better during pregnancy?

Now, we have a new option to methadone. A very recent trial, the MOTHER (Maternal Opioid Treatment: Human Experimental Research) trial, (1) compared opioid-addicted pregnant women who were put on methadone with pregnant women put on buprenorphine (better known by many as Subutex). There was roughly the same incidence of neonatal abstinence syndrome in both groups, but infants born to moms on buprenorphine had significantly milder withdrawal symptoms and required fewer days in the hospital. The bottom line is that both medications work well, but buprenorphine was better for the infants.

Reference sources: 1.Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome after Methadone or Buprenorphine Exposure, by Hendree Jones, Karol Kaltenbach, et. al., New England Journal of Medicine, December 9, 2010, 363;24: pages 2320-2331.

Photo credit: casahara

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4 Responses to “The effects of methadone treatment during pregnancy
Erica Olofson
10:39 pm October 20th, 2012

I had a son 11 months ago. He withdrew from the use of subutex during my pregnancy. Approximately 8 hours after delivery my sons hands started to shake and his eating was becoming less frequent. Nurse practitioner told me that nicholas was scored at a 19 and would need the methadone treatment we couldn’t leave the hospital for over a month. It was the hardest most painful ordeal that we have ever been through. Still almost a year later Nicholas is still quite fussy at times fussier than most babies I have seen. Will this improve with time and is their anything I can legally do because my son suffered the way that he did due to that medication during my pregnancy? Do you know of if any long term effects that could possibly occur due to the effects of the subutex or the methadone treatment after delivery. I just wanted to ask and see if their is anything I am not aware of with this situation I appreciate the time and hope to hear a response, respectfully yours, Erica

7:35 am October 22nd, 2012

Hello Erica. You can search your web browser with these keywords to look for research and/or studies about the longer term effects of withdrawal on a child born into drug dependency. subutex withdrawal neonatal subutex neonatal withdrawal long term effects drug dependency child long term effects

I did find a great article on this subject here:

6:34 am June 21st, 2018

My son was born at 35 weeks. I was taking a dose of 120 of methadone during my whole pregnancy. Did the methadone have anything to do with him having to be born early. I did not go into labor, see what happened was that I was in a car accident December 13, I stayed the night in the hospital to keep monitoring on my baby. At the time there wasn’t anything SIGNIFICANT that was bad. During the next couple of weeks I was attending every other day monitoring and ultrasounds, during those monitoring sessions there were several occasions that the nurse would have to go in physically and stun my stomach or and shake my belly or have me drink water or eat crackers in order for them to get movements readings from the monitor. Then on December 26th during a monitoring session my son’s heart rate dropped to the 80s then bounced back up to between 105-110, they then transferred me to triage and I underwent an emergency csection. Some people are blaming the methadone for his heartfailor but I am convinced that my son was u dear stress from the car accident due to the fact that the seatbelt was over my stomach and the force of impact was at a 55mph rate from a woman running a stop sign. My cousin is pregnant and asking me if she should get on the methadone program, my first thought to tell her is ‘yes as soon as possible ‘the only thing that is stopping me from telling her that is that I am not positive if the methadone did or didn’t cause my son to have to come out by emergency csection ( low heart rate).
Thank you for taking the time to read my words, I trul6hope to hear back from someone about this.

11:04 am June 29th, 2018

Hi Sona. I suggest that you consult with a doctor and a pediatrician about your issues. And, talk with your cousin that she need to speak with a gynecologist and an addiction professional.

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About Dr. Jana Burson, MD

Jana Burson M.D. is board-certified in Internal medicine, and certified by the American Board of Addiction Medicine. After practicing primary care for many years, she became interested in the treatment of addiction. For the last six years, her practice has focused exclusively on Addiction Medicine. She has written a book about prescription pain pill addiction: "Pain Pill Addiction: Prescription for Hope." Also see Dr. Burson's blog here.