A story from USA Today describes a disturbing trend in newborns – babies addicted to narcotic pain killers their mothers take. These drugs, like Oxycontin or Percocet, fall into the same class, opioids, as heroin and infants have to undergo withdrawal treatment after being born addicted.
The story uses information from a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association which tracked newborn addictions through 2009. The data shows a tripling of opioid dependency in this population, and the rise isn’t explained by heroin use – heroin use over the same time period has remained steady, while prescription drug abuse has risen dramatically.
The numbers are tragic – about one drug addicted baby born an hour in the US. The only historical parallel was the spike in “crack babies” during the 1980s and ‘90s. Mothers are sometimes unaware of the risks of prescription pain medications because they may think them safer than “street drugs.”
Newborns who are suffering withdrawal are in constant pain, with diarrhea, and have stiff muscles that won’t relax. Seizures and breathing problems may also occur. The babies are treated with opiates like methadone and slowly weaned off narcotics over a week or more.
To those in the addiction treatment industry, this report comes as no surprise. As drug fashions change so do usage patterns. The consequences are often seen in mothers and newborns. Fetuses are particularly vulnerable to sharing an addiction or its consequences with their mother. And it isn’t just illegal drugs – tobacco or alcohol use, because of popularity, probably contributes just as much harm overall.
Some states have taken the radical step of prosecuting mothers with addicted babies. The idea is to use chemical endangerment of a child laws as a way to influence a mother’s behavior. Unfortunately, enforcing these laws is only useful after the damage has been done. Another solution is good prenatal care, with drug testing and treatment designed to lower the mother’s use of narcotics before the child is even born.