By Kirstie Perrotta, MPH, MotherToBaby California

Cara and her husband Mark were contacting MotherToBaby for the first time. “Our adoption counselor just called – we have been matched with a potential birth mom this morning and she’s due next Friday!” Cara blurted out excitedly. “The counselor said you would be able to tell us about the baby’s exposure to heroin and Klonopin. I don’t know how much she used, or when she stopped. We need to make a decision today.”

As a Teratogen Information Specialist, I often receive calls from parents who are in all stages of the adoption process. The adoption journey can be an emotional rollercoaster, as Cara was experiencing. Here at MotherToBaby, we’re happy to help and it’s not uncommon for us to hear from potential parents who need to make a quick decision. We always let the prospective parents know that it’s important to learn about any exposures that may have happened during the birth mom’s pregnancy to best understand what a future with this child might look like. Bottom line: We want adoptive parents to feel as prepared and informed as possible.

So, what should a potential adoptive mom or dad ask about when making this important decision?

When asking about prenatal exposures, be sure to ask about alcohol use. Alcohol can be one of the most worrisome and scary exposures. That’s because when a woman drinks alcohol while pregnant, it has the ability to affect the baby’s brain, which is developing throughout the entire pregnancy.

Children exposed to alcohol during pregnancy are at risk for something called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). FASD is a spectrum of disorders ranging from very severe effects (such as low IQ and small head) to more minor effects (such as attention issues and poor judgment). While FASD is a lifelong diagnosis, we know that early interventions have the potential to significantly improve outcomes for these children. If you notice that your child is starting to struggle in school, or having behavior issues, will you have the time and resources to get them the extra help they may need? It’s a question you want to ask yourself as you consider adopting a child that might have special needs. Finding a specialist in your community that is familiar with treating FASD is a great place to start if you find yourself in this situation.

Heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine are exposures that we unfortunately hear about all too often. While some women continue to abuse drugs up until delivery, other birth moms are motivated to quit when they learn they are pregnant. The most important information you can try to gather about this type of exposure is HOW MUCH and HOW OFTEN did the birth mom use the drug. Was it a one-time occurrence early in pregnancy, or an addiction she struggled with the entire nine months? These details can help the specialist you speak with best assess the situation. Using these types of recreational drugs during pregnancy can increase the risk for birth defects, pregnancy complications, and learning problems. See MotherToBaby’s fact sheets for more information.

Methadone and buprenorphine are two prescription medications that are commonly used to treat addiction to opioids such as heroin, codeine, and hydrocodone. Methadone works by changing how the brain and nervous system respond to pain. It also lessens the painful symptoms of opioid withdrawal and blocks the euphoric effects of opioid drugs. To get methadone, a person has to visit a clinic every day. Buprenorphine works a bit differently and is called a “partial agonist.” This means that it partially creates a feeling of euphoria, but to a lesser degree than a narcotic like heroin. Buprenorphine is available by prescription only.

For many women, there are benefits to staying on a maintenance therapy like methadone or buprenorphine during pregnancy. Most importantly, it helps prevent relapse for women who have a history of abusing opioids. We also know that the women are getting a controlled dose of the medication every day from a healthcare provider. Lastly, women who remain on methadone or buprenorphine throughout pregnancy are less likely to have some of the health issues that traditional drug users may experience, such as a risk for infectious disease (like hepatitis C or HIV) from sharing dirty needles.

While these medications are generally preferred over continued drug abuse, there are still some risks associated with their use during pregnancy. If the birth mom you are considering reports exposure to methadone or buprenorphine, please contact us directly to learn more.

Cigarette smoking often goes hand in hand with alcohol and drug use. Again, knowing how much and how often the birth mom was smoking is the most helpful information you can have. Many times when a woman finds out she is pregnant she is able to either stop smoking completely, or cut down to just a few cigarettes per day, greatly reducing any possible risks to the baby.

Many studies have associated heavy cigarette smoking during pregnancy with an increased risk for preterm birth (delivery before 37 weeks). A baby born too early has a higher chance for health problems and may need to stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). If the birth mom you are considering is a heavy cigarette smoker, it’s important to think about how you would handle a baby that may need to spend some extra time in the hospital. For some moms and dads who are matched with a baby in a different state, this may present some logistical challenges. A couple of questions to ask yourself: will you be able to temporarily relocate to the city where the baby is born, and spend some extra time there if the baby does requires a longer hospital stay of a few weeks or more?

If a birth mom is taking a prescription medication, the most important thing to try to find out is whether she is taking it as directed, or possibly abusing it. There are many medical conditions that need to be managed during pregnancy – asthma, anxiety, depression, diabetes, and nausea to name just a few. If the birth mom is taking the medication as directed, there’s a good chance we have studies looking at typical use of the medication during pregnancy, and any possible risks to the baby may be small. If a woman is abusing the medication there is likely not as much data, so we have less understanding of how the pregnancy may be affected.

It’s also important to consider the reason a birth mom needs to take a specific medication. If the woman is prescribed a bipolar medication, for example, her medical history should be something to think about. Many health conditions have a genetic component, meaning that the baby you may adopt has the potential to inherit this condition. If the child does develop a genetic condition like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, is this something you think that you (and your partner) could take on?

While this question is slightly outside our area of expertise, it’s an important one to consider, and speaking with a genetic counselor to better understand any potential risk is a good idea.

Getting early and regular prenatal care improves the chances of a healthy pregnancy. Women who see a doctor or midwife routinely may be more motivated to stop unhealthy behaviors (such as drug use and cigarette smoking) and start healthy behaviors (like taking a daily prenatal vitamin with folic acid). Women who have access to prenatal care are also less likely to experience pregnancy complications caused by health conditions they might have (such as high blood pressure and diabetes).

While this information may not be readily available to you, there are certain situations where we know that the birth mom is more likely to be receiving prenatal care: women who are in jail or women who are in rehabilitation programs.

Ultrasounds are another aspect of prenatal care that can be helpful to know about. Typically, during a normal healthy pregnancy, women will receive what is called a fetal anatomy scan right around 20 weeks. This is a detailed ultrasound that is taking a look at all of baby’s organs (heart, kidneys, bladder, sex organs, brain, etc.) to make sure they developed properly. Measurements will also be taken to make sure the baby is growing as expected. While ultrasounds are not 100% diagnostic (meaning they can’t pick up every possible problem) a normal ultrasound does provide some reassurance. Ultrasounds are especially helpful if the birth mom was using a drug or medication that is associated with a higher risk for birth defects.

If the baby has already been born when you get the call, we have a lot more information to work with! First off, we know whether the baby was born early and we know the baby’s weight. If baby was born full term (after 37 weeks) and at a healthy weight, the likelihood of them having to stay in the NICU is much lower. A physical exam can also help rule out any major birth defects.

Lastly, we can look for something called neonatal abstinence syndrome (commonly called withdrawal). Withdrawal is an issue that can occur in some babies exposed to drugs like heroin or methamphetamine, or prescription medications like antidepressants or methadone later in pregnancy. While the specifics can vary depending on the exposure, symptoms typically develop soon after birth and in some cases can last for weeks. If a baby experiences withdrawal, they may need to spend some time in the NICU getting medication and extra care.

Wow, that sure is a lot to think about, right? The purpose of this blog is not to overwhelm you, but to inform you! We know first-hand that many adoptive moms and dads-to-be are provided with very few details about the birth mom and her possible exposures. We want to arm you with the questions to ask! In many cases you can gather some of the information discussed above from conversations with the adoption agency or the birth mom, medical records, or once the baby is born. The more information you have to share with experts like us, the better, so ask as many questions as you can! After all, this is one of the biggest decisions you will make in life, and it’s important to be as informed as possible.

After spending some time learning about the effects of heroin and Klonopin, Cara and Mark felt that they had a good understanding of the potential issues associated with these exposures, and decided to move forward with the adoption. The good news for this couple (and all adoptive parents-to-be!) is that multiple studies have shown that babies that are raised in loving and stable adoptive homes do much better than children that remain with a birth mom who is continuing to abuse drugs or alcohol. Cara called back three months later to thank us for all the information we had provided. She shared that her baby boy was home and thriving, and they were so happy to have made an informed decision.

As you move forward in the adoption process, don’t forget that Teratogen Information Specialists at MotherToBaby are available to review any specific adoptive scenarios you are presented with, at no cost to you. Don’t hesitate to give us a call at 866-626-6847 or chat with an expert today to get your questions answered!

Kirstie Perrotta, MPH, is a Teratogen Information Specialist at MotherToBaby California. In addition to counseling on both the phone and chat, she is part of MotherToBaby’s Zika Task Force and Education Committee. Kirstie received her Master of Public Health (MPH) from the University of San Francisco in 2013, and has worked in the field of reproductive health for over 6 years. She thoroughly enjoys the opportunity to educate pregnant and breastfeeding women on a daily basis.

About MotherToBaby
MotherToBaby is a service of the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS), suggested resources by many agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you have questions about exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding, please call MotherToBaby toll-FREE at 866-626-6847 or try out MotherToBaby’s new text information service by texting questions to (855) 999-3525. You can also visit to browse a library of fact sheets about dozens of viruses, medications, vaccines, alcohol, diseases, or other exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding or connect with all of our resources by downloading the new MotherToBaby free app, available on Android and iOS markets.