The Tragedy of Opioid Addicted Babies

If there’s anything more heartbreaking than the opioid and heroin addiction epidemic wreaking havoc on men and women across America, it’s the drug addicted babies who are born as a result. It would be impossible to imagine the pain a helpless baby dependent on opioids must feel when he or she uncontrollably vomits, has sweats and experiences diarrhea. As sickening as this may seem, this is the reality facing thousands of newborns in the U.S. every day.

While millions of opioid addicted adults around the nation fear and willingly avoid quitting cold-turkey because of the intense withdrawal effects, newborn babies are left without that option. They are forced to endure painful, debilitating and, at times, life-threatening opioid withdrawal symptoms.

Every 19 minutes, an opioid addicted baby is born in America. [1] Many of us are well aware of the repercussions of addiction in adults, but very little is understood about the impact it has on infants. After months of being fed opioids through the mother, these babies suffer through excruciating pain.

The Youngest Victims of America’s Drug Epidemic

As more and more Americans fall victim to prescription painkiller and heroin addiction, it’s the most helpless among us who are being forgotten. Overdose deaths from opioid abuse have quadrupled over the last 15 years and hit a record high in 2014. This problem has led to an increase in the number of infants born suffering from addiction and facing withdrawal. [2]

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) involves a group of problems that occur in a newborn who was exposed to addictive drugs (often opiates) while in the mother’s womb. [3] These infants develop a dependence on the drug while in the womb and are still dependent at birth. But because the baby is no longer receiving the drugs through the placenta, withdrawal may occur.

Symptoms of Opioid-Induced NAS

  • High-Pitched Cry
  • Jitteriness
  • Tremors
  • Convulsions
  • Fever
  • Sweating
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Mottling
  • Difficulty Sleeping
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Dehydration

These symptoms may begin as soon as 24 hours after birth or as late as 10 days. The severity of the symptoms will vary based on the type of substance used, the last time it was used and whether the baby is premature or full-term. [4] In many cases, the symptoms last for up to five days. In the event of sustained symptom escalation (which is when the symptoms persist longer), treatment often requires pharmacological intervention using methadone or morphine. Pharmacological intervention is needed for 50 to 70 percent of NAS infants. [5]

Long-Term Impact of NAS

NAS newborns may suffer from several negative side-effects.Limited information is available about the long-term developmental effects of NAS. This is largely because it would be extremely difficult to isolate all of the independent factors, including: comorbid substance exposure and environmental influences. It would be nearly impossible to determine the exact impact of NAS over a long period of time because there are too many other variables that could compromise the conclusion.

Based on observation and maternal reports, methadone-exposed infants have been found to exhibit increased motor rigidity, dysregulated motor patterns and decreased overall activity. These issues were present in toddlerhood and were associated with less social responsivity, shorter attention spans and poorer social engagement. [6]

In a longitudinal study involving 200 methadone-exposed and non-exposed infants from demographically-matched families, researchers found the following: [7]

  • Deficits in regulation, quality of movement and excitability in one-month old methadone-exposed infants.
  • Clinically significant motor delays in nine-month-old methadone-exposed infants. These motor delays primarily included independent sitting and crawling.

Alcohol and Other Drugs Also Harm Infants

Most of what a pregnant woman consumes is passed on to her baby through the placenta. No amount of drugs or alcohol is safe for a child, and expecting mothers would be wise to stop abusing these substances during their pregnancy and even during breastfeeding. Drug abuse during pregnancy can lead to a miscarriage, low birth weight, increased risk for illness, intellectual disabilities and even death. [8]

Cocaine use during pregnancy may cause the expecting mother’s water to break prematurely, and babies who are exposed to the drug in the womb will be at a higher risk for stroke, deformed limbs, brain damage and long-term behavioral problems, among many other potential health difficulties. [9]

No amount of drugs or alcohol is safe for a child.Alcohol abuse during pregnancy can also be devastating to an infant’s health. A fetus is incapable of processing alcohol in the same way that an adult can, because the alcohol is more concentrated and prevents nutrients and oxygen from reaching developing organs. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can lead to the development of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). This condition covers a wide range of symptoms, including: [10]

  • A Small Head
  • Dental Malformations
  • Delayed Development
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Kidney Defects
  • Heart Problems
  • Poor Coordination
  • Difficulties with Speech, Movement and Social Skills
  • Deformed Limbs or Fingers
  • Below Average Height and Weight
  • Behavioral Disorders

Drinking alcohol during the first trimester of a pregnancy is extremely dangerous, as this is the time when vital organs are being developed in the fetus. It is especially important that women stop drinking before trying to get pregnant. Several weeks may pass before the pregnancy is discovered, and drinking during this period could put a newborn at risk of several health problems, as indicated above.

Consuming alcohol while breastfeeding is also dangerous because alcohol passes through the body and into the breast milk easily. Continual exposure to alcohol in breast milk can lead to problems with mental and motor development.

What to Do With Addicted Mothers

As the opiate addiction epidemic has continued to grow, so has the controversy surrounding repercussions for women who abuse drugs during pregnancy. On one hand, many lawmakers throughout the nation believe that it is a criminal act to endanger the safety and life of an unborn child through illegal drug use.

Tennessee is currently the only state in the country that equates substance abuse while pregnant with aggravated assault, punishable by a 15-year prison sentence. Eighteen other states consider it to be child abuse, and three say its grounds for civil commitment. Four states require drug testing of mothers and 18 require that healthcare professionals report when drug abuse is suspected. There are also 19 states that have created funding for targeted drug treatment programs for pregnant women. [11]

Opponents of the punishment philosophy claim that punishing addicted pregnant women will not stop them from abusing drugs– instead it will stop them from seeking prenatal care. Many also claim that these policies would unfairly punish mothers for drug use compared to fathers. Organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), have encouraged a “treatment over punishment” approach for pregnant mothers with drug addictions.

We Offer Life-Saving Addiction Recovery

Any individual who is struggling with drug addiction or alcoholism needs to seek immediate treatment at a specialized addiction recovery facility. Addiction rehab saves lives and keeps families together and healthy. Each day that addiction is allowed to go untreated makes the journey to sobriety all the more difficult. The need for treatment is even more pertinent in women who are pregnant or are trying to have a baby.

Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches offers several specialized treatment programs designed to meet the specific needs of each of our patients. Our programs include gender-based addiction treatment as well as occupation-based. If you or someone you love is fighting a losing battle against addiction, contact us today at 888-432-2467 to learn how we can help.