Every hour in the United States, a baby is born showing the signs of withdrawal from opiates, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, as reported by US News. Babies born to mothers who abuse opiates during their pregnancies suffer the immediate effects of withdrawal at birth, but the end of withdrawal doesn’t always mean the end of the negative effects of the opiate addiction. Without proper support, the effects of addiction on a child may last throughout the child’s development, but the danger is typically not from the drugs themselves.
The first dangers of opiate-abuse on an infant begins prior to birth, as the baby becomes exposed to the substance in the womb. A baby whose mother abuses opiates develops a dependence on the substance as well, so if a mother stops taking opiates in the midst of her pregnancy, whether by choice or because the drugs are not available, the baby suffers a form of withdrawal known as fetal abstinence syndrome.
Fetal abstinence syndrome may lead to lower birth weights, stillbirths, premature deliveries, and sudden infant death syndrome, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Infants born with opiate dependence generally have low birth weights and small heads in comparison to babies born without the dependence, and may have other symptoms that include jaundice, infections and aspiration pneumonia, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s PubMed. Opiate-addicted newborns also go through acute withdrawal, known as neonatal abstinence syndrome, due to the sudden cutting off of the drug, which leads to seizures in 2 to 11 percent of opiate-addicted babies.
The longer-lasting symptoms an opiate-dependent newborn may experience include:
- High muscle density
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Respiratory distress
- Poor sucking skills
- Poor swallowing reflexes
- High-pitched cry
According to PubMed, infant opiate-withdrawal may last for up to three months after birth, though withdrawal symptoms generally disappear within two months, according to Princeton University’s The Future of Children.
Studies that have attempted to determine long-term effects of opiate-exposure in the womb and opiate-decency at birth have been conflicting. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, this is due to the fact that follow up studies have had small sample sizes that don’t allow researchers to account for all factors.
In some studies, children who were exposed to opiates in utero and went through withdrawal after birth show signs of delayed cognitive functioning at age three, including the impaired ability to speak and low reading and math skills for their ages. Other studies have found no gap between the cognitive abilities of children who were exposed to opiates in utero and children who had no opiate exposure from the ages of six to 13.
Some studies, according to Princeton University’s The Future of Children, have shown children born with opiate addictions to have physical and behavioral problems at ages the ages of three to six compared with non-exposed children, while others have shown children in the same age group to have no delays.
At least one study, though, of school age children exposed to heroin in the woman, according to Princeton, found that 65-percent of the kids had repeated at least one grade or required special education.
Studies of children born with opiate-dependencies are further complicated by the unstable environments in which many of these children grow up. According to Princeton’s The Future of Children, 48-percent of children born to heroin-users still live with their biological mothers, while 80-percent of children born to ex-heroin-users who are in methadone programs live with their biological mothers.
By preschool, or roughly ages 3 to 5, the number of children who live with heroin-user mothers drops to nine-percent, while 50-percent of mothers in methadone programs retain custody of their children. This discrepancy makes it difficult for researchers to determine how much a child’s cognitive and behavioral problems directly relate to opiate-addiction in infancy, and how much a child’s problems are influenced by the home environment during childhood.
There is no consensus on whether or not children exposed to opiates in utero have an innate disadvantage in cognition, behavior and growth, but, according to Princeton, researchers are largely in agreement that children’s environment after birth has more effect on their behavior and their ability to learn than the prenatal opiate-exposure.
Since the abrupt withdrawal from opiates has a negative effect on a fetus, mothers who have an opiate-addiction should seek help in reducing and stopping their opiate abuse during a pregnancy. The sooner a mother begins to reduce her opiate usage during her pregnancy, the less discomfort her newborn is likely to experience at birth.
Even babies born with opiate-dependence who go though neonatal abstinence syndrome have the potential to lead full, healthy lives with minimal learning, behavioral and physical challenges. A steady home environment provides the basis these children need to thrive and keep up cognitively and behaviorally with children who had no prenatal exposure to opiates.
As studies have shown, children with mothers who stop using heroin and participate in methadone-maintenance programs to deal with their addictions, provide more stable home environments, with 50-percent of these mothers retaining custody of their children. This is proof that, even a mother who still abuses heroin or another opiate when a child is born has the time and the potential to go through rehabilitation and provide her child with a stable home environment.
Being born with an opiate-addiction makes the first few months of a child’s life difficult. The pain of withdrawal causes irritability and inconsolability in infants, which, according to Princeton University’s The Future of Children, may continue throughout the first year of life. This proves especially difficult for caretakers of these infants, who may cry constantly and be unable to be comforted.
Though studies have been inconsistent, the general consensus regarding children born with opiate-addictions indicates that positive outcomes are likely for those children who have steady early home lives once they get past their withdrawal.
Treatment is Available
The treatment options are out there for mothers to overcome their own addictions to opiates like heroin or morphine, through detoxification programs, methadone-maintenance and long-term counseling. Since consistency in early childhood is an important factor in a child’s physical, cognitive and behavioral development, a mother who manages her opiate addiction and can give her child a stable home environment increases the chances that her child born with an addiction to opiates will suffer no long-term effects.