Opioid dependence and pregnancy: minimizing stress on the fetal brain

John J. McCarthy, Martin H Leamon, Loretta P. Finnegan, Catherine Fassbender

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


Increase in the number of opioid-dependent pregnant women delivering babies at risk for neonatal abstinence syndrome prompted a US Government Accountability Office report documenting deficits in research and provider knowledge about care of the maternal/fetal unit and the neonate. There are 3 general sources of dependence: untreated opioid use disorder, pain management, and medication-assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine. A survey of methadone patients’ experiences when telling a physician of their pregnancy and opioid dependence demonstrated physician confusion about proper care, frequent negative interactions with the mother, and failures to provide appropriate referral. Patients in pain management were discharged without referral when the physician was told of the pregnancy. Methadone and buprenorphine were frequently seen negatively because they “caused” neonatal abstinence syndrome. Most mothers surveyed had to find opioid treatment on their own. How dependence is managed medically is a critical determinant of the level of stress on both mother and fetus, and therefore another determinant of neonatal health. The effects of both opioid withdrawal stress and maternal emotional stress on neonatal and developmental outcomes are reviewed. Currently, there have been efforts to criminalize maternal opioid dependence and to encourage or coerce pregnant women to undergo withdrawal. This practice poses both acute risks of fetal hypoxia and long-term risks of adverse epigenetic programming related to catecholamine and corticosteroid surges during withdrawal. Contemporary studies of the effects of withdrawal stress on the developing fetal brain are urgently needed to elucidate and quantify the risks of such practices. At birth, inconsistencies in the hospital management of neonates at risk for neonatal abstinence syndrome have been observed. Neglect of the critical role of maternal comforting in neonatal abstinence syndrome management is an iatrogenic and preventable cause of poor outcomes and long hospitalizations. Rooming-in allows for continuous care of the baby and maternal/neonatal attachment, often unwittingly disrupted by the neonatal intensive care unit environment. Recommendations are made for further research into physician/patient interactions and into optimal dosing of methadone and buprenorphine to minimize maternal/fetal withdrawal.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)226-231
Number of pages6
JournalAmerican Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2017


  • buprenorphine
  • fetal stress programming
  • methadone
  • neonatal abstinence syndrome
  • opioid dependence
  • pharmacokinetics
  • pregnancy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Obstetrics and Gynecology


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