Substance Use in Pregnant Women Underestimated

New Study Suggests Rate of Alcohol Use Might Be Almost 19%

Andrew D. Bowser

May 06, 2020

The use of alcohol, tobacco products, and drugs by pregnant women is a substantial problem that may be more prevalent than previously thought, according to researcher Kimberly Yonkers, MD.

Dr Kimberly Yonkers

Higher levels of substance use during pregnancy means more negative impacts on maternal and fetal, neonatal, and child health. However, one bit of good news is that pregnant women still are less likely than nonpregnant women to engage in such behavior, said Dr. Yonkers, director of psychological medicine and the Center for Wellbeing of Women and Mothers at Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

"We need to capitalize on that and explore it, and try and figure out ways that women can maintain their well-being from pregnancy to the postnatal period," Dr. Yonkers said in a featured presentation at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, which was held as a virtual live event.

Tobacco predominates among substances of concern used by pregnant women, with 11.6% reporting past-month use in 2018, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Dr. Yonkers said. Alcohol was next, with 9.9% of pregnant women reporting use in the past month, followed by drugs at 5.4%, of which marijuana was the most common.

Those numbers may jump much higher when focusing on substance use that's biologically verified, she added, referring to a recent three-center cross-sectional study she and her colleagues published in Addiction (2019 Jun 19. doi: 10.1111/add.14651).

In that study, alcohol use was as high as 18.9% among pregnant women who either had positive urine or self-reported use. Similarly, rates of nicotine or nicotine byproduct detected were 27% at one center in the study, and tetrahydrocannabinol reached 29.4% at that same center.

"These numbers are impressive," Dr. Yonkers told attendees at the meeting. "So what we may be seeing in terms of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, as valuable as it is, is in all likelihood it underestimates the use of substances in pregnancy."

Substance use goes down in pregnancy as some women become more mindful of perinatal health, though unfortunately, that abstinence is offset by a dramatic rise in substance use in the 6-12 months' postpartum, research suggests.

Interestingly, big differences are found in both abstinence and relapse rates, with some data sets showing that, while alcohol is stopped fairly early, cigarettes are stopped much later, if at all.

On the postpartum side of the equation, relapse rates look similar for cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana, but for some reason, cocaine relapse rates are much lower "That's kind of nice, and we'd like to be able to understand what it is about this whole process that enabled that relative period of wellness," Dr. Yonkers said.

Opioid use disorder is rising among pregnant women, just like it is in the general population, and 50% – or possibly even as high as 80% – of babies born to these women will experience neonatal opioid withdrawal, Dr. Yonkers said.

Maternal mortality in the United States increased by 34% from 2008 to 2016; while that's a sobering statistic, Dr. Yonkers said, opioid-related maternal mortality doubled over that same time period.

"We really have to be mindful that we're not just talking about taking care of kids and offspring, but we have to take care of moms – it's really critical," she said.

With the increasing legalization of cannabis, it's expected that a lot more cannabis-exposed pregnancies will be seen in clinical practice, and some studies are starting to show an increase in prevalence in the preconception, prenatal, and postpartum period.

While some people feel that cannabis is benign, more data are needed, according to Dr. Yonkers, who said that cannabis and its metabolites cross the blood/placenta and blood/milk barriers, and that cannabinoid receptors are "very important" to fertility, implantation, and fetal development. One study recently published linked cannabis use in pregnancy to significant increases in preterm birth rates (JAMA. 2019 Jun 18;322[2]:145-52).

"We don't really have a context for this, so we don't really know what's going to have an impact, and what's not," Dr. Yonkers said.

While both standard and novel treatments could help in the quest to achieve and maintain well-being in this unique patient population, Dr. Yonkers said that health equity and universal approaches to care might be needed to more comprehensively address the problem, which means taking a close look at how much money women have, the resources available to them, and where they live.

In many communities, eliminating inequalities in care will be critical to successfully addressing substance use issues in pregnant women, agreed Maureen Sayres Van Niel, MD, a specialist in women's psychiatry in Boston and president of the Women's Caucus of the APA.

"What we see is such a disparity in the delivery of care to women who are poor and living in communities where the socioeconomic and financial problems are very severe," Dr. Van Niel said in an interview. "Unless we address these disparities, women will not be getting the kind of health care that they really need to have in the perinatal period."

Dr. Yonkers reported a disclosure related to UpToDate.

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