Are Moms With Opioid Addiction At Heightened Risk For Overdose?

By Beth Leipholtz 09/10/18

A new study examined pregnant women and new moms with opioid use disorder.

mother lying with her newborn

After finding out she was pregnant with her second child while in a Massachusetts prison, Katie Raftery entered treatment for heroin use. She stayed seven months, until her son was born. It wasn’t until he was about six weeks old that she began to feel the familiar urges to return to using.

According to the Sarasota Herald Tribune, a new study shows that women who use opioids, like Raftery, are at greater risk of an overdose in the year following their child’s birth.

Rather than return to using, Raftery was able to use her insurance coverage and reach out to her doctor to ask for buprenorphine, a medication that can treat opioid use disorder. But not all women in the country have the ability to take similar actions. 

According to the Herald Tribune, in states that do not offer expanded Medicaid, low-income women lose their insurance coverage eight weeks after giving birth. Addiction experts say this is concerning, as it makes a relapse during postpartum depression and opioid cravings more likely. 

“As a whole, women with substance use disorders do quite well during pregnancy, due in large extent to access to care, insurance coverage and attention from social services,” Mishka Terplan, an obstetrics and gynecology physician at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, told the newspaper. “Where things fall apart is postpartum. We actually abandon women after delivery.”

Terplan served as the co-author of the study published last month. During the course of the study, researchers kept track of more than 4,000 women with opioid use disorder in Massachusetts, for the duration of the year before and after giving birth.

The study’s results indicated that deaths from opioid overdoses decrease during pregnancy, but increase in the seven to 12 months following birth. Since all of the women involved in the study resided in Massachusetts, insurance coverage was not a factor.

Davida Schiff, lead author of the study and a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells the Herald Journal that sustaining care for women well after childbirth is vital.

“Pregnancy seems to be a time for change. Women tend to make healthier decisions during pregnancy. So, for women with an opioid addiction, it can be a motivating moment,” she said. 

“We should capitalize on the emotions women feel during pregnancy, and sustain their care or enhance it during the postpartum period, which is arguably the most challenging.”

The Herald Journal states that while the opioid epidemic has hit the country hard as a whole, it has impacted subgroups, like pregnant women and new moms, especially hard.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that between 1999 and 2014, the number of pregnant women who used opioids more than quadrupled.

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.