Stigma felt by opioid-addicted mothers affects the medical care their babies receive // ​​Show Me Mizzou // University of Missouri

October 3, 2023
Contact: Brian Consiglio, 573-882-9144,

Opioid use among pregnant women in the United States quadrupled between 1999 and 2014 and continues to increase. This is an alarming trend, according to US researchers. University of Missouri The University of Iowa said it has exposed the stigma that opioid-addicted mothers feel and how their shame negatively impacts the medical care their infants receive.

As a doctoral student in the MU Sinclair School of Nursing, Jamie Morton led a study that was a meta-synthesis of existing literature on the topic. She said the findings can help health care providers, families, friends and community members emphasize messages of support and compassion for mothers with perinatal opioid addiction. The perinatal period is defined in this study as the year before conception, pregnancy, and birth. From 18 to 24 months postpartum.

“We found that mothers withdrew from seeking medical care because they were made to feel bad about themselves,” Morton said.

Morton added that mothers often lack emotional and social support from health care providers, family, friends and community members, leading to feelings of self-blame and internalized stigma.

“What was surprising was that the stigma was passed on to the baby, which is called associative stigma. Mothers felt that their infants were not receiving the same level of care or were being treated differently. I felt that way,” Morton said. “Mothers are less likely to take their babies to the pediatrician and less likely to use baby developmental services, as they try to avoid medical care in the first place to protect their children from stigma.” It’s gotten lower.”

Morton explained that this can lead to mothers being called “disobedient” or “bad mothers.”

Researchers analyzed and synthesized 18 qualitative studies of women of childbearing age in the United States who expressed feeling stigmatized by perinatal opioid dependence. They also explored how that stigma affected the medical care they received for themselves and their babies.

“How often do you hear the phrase, ‘The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree?'” Morton said. “Personally, I think everyone should be given a chance and treated with the same kindness and consideration as everyone else.”

Morton used to work in a neonatal unit and remembers the mothers being very withdrawn.

“I decided to treat them like any other mother, because all mothers deserve our support as nurses and health care providers,” Morton said. “All we need to do is promote motherhood, but also the opportunity for children to be at the center of medical decisions about both themselves and their babies.”

This research could lead to more formal education, including topics such as trauma-informed care, trust, active listening, unconscious bias, and not making decisions based on assumptions. As a result, mothers with opioid addiction may feel more comfortable accessing their own care, taking their babies to pediatricians, and accessing baby development services. This will ultimately improve the long-term health of both mother and baby.

“This extends far beyond nurses and health care workers who generally do a great job of showing support, kindness and compassion to patients,” Morton said. “This extends to the importance of family, friends, community members and the general public showing support, kindness and compassion. We can elevate the voices of these vulnerable women. It’s an honor and a privilege because their voices don’t usually get heard, but we need to if we’re going to meet their health care needs.”

“Stigma experienced by perinatal women with opioid dependence in the United States: A qualitative meta-synthesis” was recently published. Western Journal of Nursing Research. Funding was provided by the National Institutes of Health through a training grant awarded to the MU Sinclair School of Nursing.

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