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Heroin & Pregnancy: Must-Know Effects

Peter Manza, PhD profile image
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD • Updated Nov 22, 2023 • 8 cited sources

Heroin is always dangerous, but it’s especially problematic when two lives are on the line. Women who use heroin during pregnancy can harm their bodies in profound ways.

And the drug can cross the placenta and into the baby’s body too. A baby’s life could be forever changed — or ended — by a mother’s drug use. 

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is an illicit opioid drug created from the morphine inside the sap of poppy plants. Dealers sell it as a white or brown powder or as a sticky tar-like product.[1]

While dealers may boast and brag about how pure or strong their heroin products are, most users are unaware of how much heroin is included in their dose.[1] That uncertainty can lead to an overdose. Any woman who uses heroin during pregnancy could lose her life, and her baby, due to a heroin overdose. 

What Happens if You Use Heroin During Pregnancy?

Researchers say the number of women with an opioid use disorder (OUD) at delivery increased 131% from 2010 to 2017.[2] Chances are, many of these women had no idea that their drug use could harm their babies. 

The March of Dimes says all of the following issues can happen to babies due to heroin exposure during pregnancy:[3]

Birth Defects

Birth defects are health problems caused during the pregnancy. Researchers say about 3% of babies are born with these problems each year.[4] 

Some birth defects are small and don’t require treatment. But others, such as heart disease, can cause serious issues or even the baby’s death. 

Placental Abruption

A placenta connects a baby to the mother’s lungs, digestive tract and blood supply. A strong attachment ensures that the baby has everything required to grow up healthy and strong. 

Heroin can cause the placenta to separate from the wall of the uterus. The result is very heavy bleeding. The baby can die due to lack of nutrients and oxygen. The mom can die from blood loss.[3]

Premature Birth 

Babies born before 37 weeks of pregnancy are considered premature. Babies born early may have significant health problems that require treatment in the hospital after the birth. That care happens in dedicated neonatal intensive care units.[5]

Once these babies head home, their problems don’t always disappear. Some premature babies have health problems that persist throughout their lives. Sometimes, parents don’t even realize these issues exist until the baby is older.[5]

Low Birth Weight 

A baby born with a weight that is less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces is a low birth weight baby. Sometimes, these small babies are healthy despite their size. But tiny babies can have trouble fighting off infections and eating independently.[6] 

These babies need treatment in a hospital. Some cycle in and out of doctor’s appointments and clinics for much of their lives. 

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome 

Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) describes a series of symptoms seen in babies exposed to heroin during pregnancy who have developed physical dependence. Most NAS cases can be successfully treated in the hospital. But babies can be severely uncomfortable while their bodies adjust to sobriety.[7]


The term stillbirth describes the death of a baby after 20 weeks of pregnancy but before birth.[3] It can be excruciating to lose a baby during pregnancy. American culture doesn’t always allow women to discuss a stillbirth, so there’s no public grieving process that anyone can access easily. 

For some women, the trauma of stillbirth can lead to self-medication with heroin. Overdose is possible, which can be fatal.


Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is the unexplained death of a very small human. Researchers say SIDS is a consequence of heroin exposure during pregnancy.[3] 

Losing a baby is traumatic, and some women engage in self-blame and self-harm. Medicating with heroin may seem like the appropriate step, and this could be fatal. 

Can a Baby Be Addicted to Heroin?

Heroin can cross from a mother’s body to her baby. After long-term exposure to this drug, babies can develop a physical dependence on it. 

When they’re born, these babies are immediately cut off from the drug supply. They develop neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) as a result.[7]

NAS symptoms can include the following:[7]

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Sleepiness
  • Poor feeding
  • Irritability 
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Vomiting 
  • Diarrhea 

Symptoms typically appear within two days of birth, and they can last for weeks.[7] Medical teams don’t allow babies to suffer. Instead, they use medications to help babies feel better. Therapies like buprenorphine can ease withdrawal symptoms and help babies feel more comfortable. 

Babies have a physical dependence, but they don’t have the psychological obsession associated with OUD. They need medications to lessen physical discomfort. But they only need those drugs for a short period until they feel better. 

These babies may also have related health issues that need to be addressed before they go home. Again, some of these issues may persist for the rest of their lives.

How to Safely Detox From Heroin While Pregnant

Habitual heroin users shouldn’t quit heroin cold turkey even if they’re pregnant. If you’ve been using heroin and find out you’re pregnant, don’t just suddenly stop taking it. Reach out to a doctor instead. While drugs are unsafe for babies, withdrawal symptoms can also be dangerous. 

Women physically dependent on heroin can experience flu-like withdrawal symptoms when they quit drugs abruptly. Those symptoms can lead to severe problems for growing babies.[7] It’s never recommended to enter withdrawal while pregnant without medical supervision and support. 

Researchers say pregnant women who are addicted to heroin can benefit from buprenorphine drugs, including Suboxone (which contains the abuse-prevention ingredient naloxone). These medications can transition a woman from using illicit drugs like heroin to using a prescription medication that’s safer and won’t get you high.[8]

Your doctor will determine how much heroin you’re accustomed to and find the right Suboxone dose. You can take it as directed by your doctor during pregnancy, and it could reduce or eliminate NAS when the baby is born.[8] You can keep using this medication after the birth too. 

How to Find an MAT Program 

Women who are pregnant should ask their doctors about Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT) programs. Comprehensive care should be part of your pregnancy plan. Your treatment team for OUD should work in concert with the doctor monitoring your pregnancy to ensure safety on all fronts.

If you’re not pregnant now but want to have a baby, it’s time to quit heroin. Bicycle Health can help. We use a telemedicine model to deliver Suboxone MAT. 

In this model, you’ll meet with your treatment team in virtual appointments, using your phone, tablet or computer. You can then pick up Suboxone at a pharmacy in your area. You’ll get your mind and body ready for a sober life as a parent. 

Reach out to us to find out if this is the right treatment model for you. 

Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD

Peter Manza, PhD received his BA in Psychology and Biology from the University of Rochester and his PhD in Integrative Neuroscience at Stony Brook University. He is currently working as a research scientist in Washington, DC. His research focuses on the role ... Read More

  1. Heroin. United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Accessed October 20, 2023. 
  2. About opioid use during pregnancy. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published November 28, 2023. Accessed October 20, 2023. 
  3. Heroin and pregnancy. March of Dimes. Published September 2020. Accessed October 20, 2023.
  4. Birth defects and your baby. March of Dimes. Published June 2019. Accessed October 20, 2023.
  5. Long-term health effects of premature birth. March of Dimes. Published October 2019. Accessed October 20, 2023.
  6. Low birthweight. March of Dimes. Published June 2021. Accessed October 20, 2023.
  7. Heroin. Organization of Teratology Information Specialists. Published January 2022. Accessed October 20, 2023.
  8. How does heroin use affect pregnant women? National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published June 2018. Accessed October 20, 2023. 

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