A New Generation of Drug-Addicted Newborns

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The New York Times recently reported on a woman in Maine named Tonya who abused OxyContin and other prescription drugs during her first trimester of pregnancy.  She then attempted to detox on her own, causing her unborn baby to experience seizures.  Next she turned to methadone, which she used daily for the remaining months of her pregnancy.  Shortly after birth, Tonya’s baby began to experience opiate withdrawal.  Doctors had no choice but to begin a course of methadone treatment for the newborn.

With prescription drug abuse reaching epidemic levels, hospitals across the nation are faced with the challenge of caring for newborns who are addicted to painkillers.  Like the crack babies of the 1980s, infants who are born with a dependence on narcotic drugs that contain opium or its derivatives begin life with a condition that is new terrain for medical science.  Little is known about the long-term prognosis for their condition and there are few doctors willing to treat these young drug addicts.

Babies who are born with an opiate drug dependency cry more than normal in the days following birth and suffer from withdrawal symptoms that include tremors, diarrhea, stiff limbs and other problems.  Many require extended care in neonatal units in order to be weaned from drugs under medical supervision.  Doctors who treat pregnant women who are addicted to drugs are faced with a moral dilemma.  Should they continue to prescribe drugs in order to avoid the risks of withdrawal, knowing that the fetus will most likely become drug dependent?  Or should they advise expectant mothers to stop using drugs and risk miscarriage?  There are no clear answers.

There have been few studies on pregnant women and newborns to determine the effect of prescription drug addiction during pregnancy.  The majority of pregnant women are not tested for opiate drug use before giving birth and few admit to abusing prescription drugs for fear of criminal prosecution or of losing custody of their baby.  One study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that infants who were exposed to opiates in the womb have slightly higher rates of glaucoma, heart defects and other birth defects.

In addition to a lack of information about the effects of opiate drugs on a developing fetus, there is also a lack of standards with regard to how prescription drug-dependent newborns should be treated.  The state of Maine treats addicted babies with morphine, while other states are experimenting with mild sedatives like clonidine to help relieve withdrawal symptoms.  An additional complication in many cases is that mothers who are addicted to prescription drugs often abuse other substances including alcohol and illicit street drugs during pregnancy.  Their children are born with a spectrum of problems that will most likely follow them into adulthood.