Born With a Drug Habit

One of the results of having a drug addiction and living in a community with others who share your addiction, is that a higher percentage of community members will become pregnant.

The tragic result is that the babies born to these new mothers arrive into the world with a drug dependency or addiction. These innocent babies are at risk of a wide range of immediate health problems which other babies will not need to experience. And even when the immediate dependency has been dealt with successfully, they’re at higher risk of developing other long-term medical conditions.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

This is the official title of the condition where when a baby is born, they no longer have access to the substance to which the mother was addicted. The baby then will immediately go into withdrawal and experience all the associated side effects that an adult would encounter.

Some drugs are more likely to cause greater withdrawal issues than others. Opiates cause withdrawal in 50 percent of babies exposed to it in the womb, and the symptoms can last for as long as 4 – 6 months during which the baby will also be at higher risk of seizure.

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Alcohol use while pregnant is linked to a greater potential of deformity, heart defects and intellectual disability in babies born, while marijuana and amphetamine use has been shown to cause low birth weight.

Symptoms of Withdrawal

Babies experience the same withdrawal issues as do adult addicts but, of course, these issues cause much more distress in someone who is only a matter of hours old and weighs only a few pounds. When dealing with babies who are born addicted to drugs or alcohol, medical professionals are put in a position to deal with the symptoms as they present themselves, rather than having the ability to predict what side effects may occur as in the typical course of adult withdrawal.

Caring for Babies with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

We can all imagine how difficult it would be to deal with a feverish baby who can’t be comforted due to the physical effects of drug withdrawal. The first few hours and days of the baby’s life are critical.

The medical staff tasked with issuing care will commonly use a scoring system to assess the extent of the baby’s medical issues. They will collect a complete overview of the mother’s drug habits and a list of which drug(s) she has taken before and during her pregnancy. Utilizing the scoring system along with having a more complete picture of the situation at hand, the medical team can then begin to treat the baby in an effective manner.

Sometimes replacement drugs will be administered to the baby to ease the effects of withdrawal and are then reduced over time. It’s desperately sad to think of a newborn being given phenobarbital or methadone, but it is typically a much-preferred choice to watching the baby suffer from withdrawal. While being treated, motorized swings are sometimes used to simulate movement and have been found to help comfort the newborn.

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Long-Term Effects

Unfortunately, there is more to this syndrome than just the withdrawal. A pregnant woman using illicit substances is less likely to seek medical attention throughout her pregnancy, putting her and the baby at medical and nutritional risk. And, if the mother-to-be becomes infected with HIV, quite possibly through risky behavior more common to drug users, the baby will too be infected in some capacity, as blood is passed through the placenta.

Babies who are exposed to drugs while in the womb tend to be smaller in size than other babies and are more likely to be born prematurely. They are also more at risk of seizure and birth defects than babies who have not been exposed to drugs.

Long-term medical problems can occur with the baby’s hearing which can manifest in hearing loss and delays in language skills and speaking ability. Vision problems may occur as well. Lazy eye is a common issue as is an overactive eye. Visual development is usually delayed in the same manner as is hearing development. The baby is also much more likely to experience poor motor skills as well as behavioral and cognitive issues. Lastly, studies have also connected this syndrome with sudden infant death syndrome.

To round out the picture, the baby will also be at lifetime risk of developing a future drug use problem…and the cycle continues.

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Prevention of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

The truly tragic part of all of this is that the syndrome can be 100 percent prevented. The over-use or addiction to prescription medication is one aspect that can be discussed between doctor and patient. If a woman finds herself to be pregnant while receiving prescription medication, she, along with the doctor’s approval, may decide to abstain from taking it during her pregnancy.

Illicit substances are considerably more difficult to control and to treat. Of course, if a woman who is addicted to a drug such as opiates, and cannot seem to stop use, she is best to avoid becoming pregnant at all risk. Although, that might be easier said than done.

Reviewed for accuracy by:

Randi Bruneau

Randi is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor and Supervisor who has over 20 years of experience in the field of mental health and addictions. She has worked in both clinical and administrative leadership roles and also has extensive career experience in gender specific trauma treatment, crisis intervention, structural family work and substance use disorder treatment and supervision.