Substance use in pregnancy

J Obstet Gynaecol Can. 2011 Apr;33(4):367-384. doi: 10.1016/S1701-2163(16)34855-1.


Objective: To improve awareness and knowledge of problematic substance use in pregnancy and to provide evidence-based recommendations for the management of this challenging clinical issue for all health care providers.

Options: This guideline reviews the use of screening tools, general approach to care, and recommendations for clinical management of problematic substance use in pregnancy.

Outcomes: Evidence-based recommendations for screening and management of problematic substance use during pregnancy and lactation.

Evidence: Medline, PubMed, CINAHL, and The Cochrane Library were searched for articles published from 1950 using the following key words: substance-related disorders, mass screening, pregnancy complications, pregnancy, prenatal care, cocaine, cannabis, methadone, opioid, tobacco, nicotine, solvents, hallucinogens, and amphetamines. Results were initially restricted to systematic reviews and randomized control trials/controlled clinical trials. A subsequent search for observational studies was also conducted because there are few RCTs in this field of study. Articles were restricted to human studies published in English. Additional articles were located by hand searching through article reference lists. Searches were updated on a regular basis and incorporated in the guideline up to December 2009. Grey (unpublished) literature was also identified through searching the websites of health technology assessment and health technology assessment-related agencies, clinical practice guideline collections, clinical trial registries, and national and international medical specialty societies.

Values: The quality of evidence was rated using the criteria described in the Report of the Canadian Task Force on the Preventive Health Care. Recommendations for practice were ranked according to the method described in that report (Table 1).

Benefits, harms, and costs: This guideline is intended to increase the knowledge and comfort level of health care providers caring for pregnant women who have substance use disorders. Improved access to health care and assistance with appropriate addiction care leads to reduced health care costs and decreased maternal and neonatal morbidity and mortality.

Recommendations: 1. All pregnant women and women of childbearing age should be screened periodically for alcohol, tobacco, and prescription and illicit drug use. (III-A) 2. When testing for substance use is clinically indicated, urine drug screening is the preferred method. (II-2A) Informed consent should be obtained from the woman before maternal drug toxicology testing is ordered. (III-B) 3. Policies and legal requirements with respect to drug testing of newborns may vary by jurisdiction, and caregivers should be familiar with the regulations in their region. (III-A) 4. Health care providers should employ a flexible approach to the care of women who have substance use problems, and they should encourage the use of all available community resources. (II-2B) 5. Women should be counselled about the risks of periconception, antepartum, and postpartum drug use. (III-B) 6. Smoking cessation counselling should be considered as a first-line intervention for pregnant smokers. (I-A) Nicotine replacement therapy and/or pharmacotherapy can be considered if counselling is not successful. (I-A) 7. Methadone maintenance treatment should be standard of care for opioid-dependent women during pregnancy. (II-IA) Other slow-release opioid preparations may be considered if methadone is not available. (II-2B) 8. Opioid detoxification should be reserved for selected women because of the high risk of relapse to opioids. (II-2B) 9. Opiate-dependent women should be informed that neonates exposed to heroin, prescription opioids, methadone, or buprenorphine during pregnancy are monitored closely for symptoms and signs of neonatal withdrawal (neonatal abstinence syndrome). (II-2B) Hospitals providing obstetric care should develop a protocol for assessment and management of neonates exposed to opiates during pregnancy. (III-B) 10. Antenatal planning for intrapartum and postpartum analgesia may be offered for all women in consultation with appropriate health care providers. (III-B) 11. The risks and benefits of breastfeeding should be weighed on an individual basis because methadone maintenance therapy is not a contraindication to breastfeeding. (II-3B).

Publication types

  • Practice Guideline
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Breast Feeding
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Maternal Health Services
  • Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome / diagnosis
  • Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome / therapy
  • Pain / drug therapy
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications / diagnosis*
  • Pregnancy Complications / therapy*
  • Professional-Patient Relations
  • Smoking Cessation / methods
  • Substance Abuse Detection
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / therapy
  • Substance-Related Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / therapy*