Brain and Body

What Happens When a Baby Is Born Addicted to Drugs?

December 16, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Newborn infant in a hospital bed
Photo credit: (CC0)

When a newborn cries for heroin instead of milk.

Those who see addiction as a personal choice instead of a disease often look down upon addicts, but what if that drug addict is a baby who was born that way?

Research has shown that consuming drugs and alcohol during pregnancy can lead to a number of health problems, like low birth weight, premature labor, fetal death, and miscarriage. But in some cases, the mother’s addiction is passed on to her child, and the baby’s first worldly experiences are withdrawal symptoms and rehab.

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Lauren M. Jansson, an associate professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told SheKnows that babies who are addicted to drugs suffer from the symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). These drug-addicted infants can endure a number of problems with autonomic nervous system control: fever, vomiting, diarrhea, gagging, hiccupping, color changes, and fast breathing, to name a few.

They also have difficulties with movement, like tremors and jitteriness. This is apparent in the video below, and these kinds of problems can make feeding difficult and lead to unhealthy weight loss.

Babies who are born addicted to drugs can be treated either with or without medication, and if medical interventions are necessary, physicians typically use morphine. Sometimes methadone and other medications are used, but doctors try to use as little meds as possible.

“The goal of pharmacologic therapy for NAS is to provide just enough medication so that the infant can eat, sleep and interact,” Dr. Jansson said. “The medication is gradually weaned off prior to hospital discharge.”

According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the admissions of addicted babies into US neonatal intensive care units nearly quadrupled from 2004 to 2013. The babies affected by NAS have distinctly different experiences as well — along with differing symptoms, NAS can last anywhere from 1 week to 6 months.

The baby seen in the video below is suffering from withdrawal after being born addicted to opioids. As part of Reuters’ investigation into drug-addicted born infants, the publication reports that, on average, one baby is born dependent on opioids in the US every 19 minutes.

But what about the long-term effects of being born addicted to drugs?

For one, they’re at a higher risk of negative co-habiting experiences like exposure to violence, poor nutrition, and continued maternal drug use. But Dr. Jansson says that substance-exposed children are also at an increased risk for medical, emotional, developmental, and behavioral issues as they grow up.

However, if the mothers are able to maintain their sobriety, many of the children have the opportunity to function just fine. But a lot goes into it — ongoing support from the medical community, ongoing drug abuse treatment for the parents, psychiatric care, and early intervention services for the children are likely needed.

So will life be harder for a drug-exposed child than your average Joe and Jane? Likely, yes.

But with the right resources and support, they can lead happy, productive lives. “Comprehensive, ongoing, non-judgmental and mindful care can provide these families with what they need to be healthy and productive members of their communities, and to break the cycle of addiction within families,” adds Dr. Jansson.

You might also like: The Changing Face of an Opiate Addict

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