Repetitive use of illicit drugs such as cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamines greatly increases the chance that a baby will be born addicted to the parents drug of choice. Since baby shares the mother’s hit, if a mother is addicted to something, it’s likely the baby will be born with the same addiction. In addition to the biological risks such exposure poses, substance addicted babies face numerous challenges as they start life. Imagine having to go through heroin withdrawal from the day you are born. Judging from the behavior of addicts in treatment clinics, withdrawal doesn’t seem like such a fun thing to go through. This puts baby in a great deal of pain and stress right from the start, at an age where such pain exposure has been shown to be devastating. (McEwen & Schmeck, 1994)
“When a child’s first days in this world are in agony, that certainly should be a concern to all of us. We need to do all we can to prevent this.”
– Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy (Ungar, 10-10-2014)
The suffering these babies go through is certainly on par with other types of pain-inducing abuse. For example, meth babies exhibit symptoms such as severe shaking and tremors, a hypersensitivity towards touch, decreased muscle tone, and severe irritability. Cocaine and heroin withdrawal produce similar effects.
Doctors are also seeing a recent surge in newborns addicted to prescription painkillers. These babies experience withdrawal a few days after birth. They scream, twitch and vomit. They have trouble breathing and eating. They rub their noses with their fists so much that their skin bleeds. “It’s the newborn equivalent of an adult who goes off drugs cold turkey,” says Lewis Rubin, director of newborn services at Tampa General Hospital and chairman of neonatology at the University of South Florida. “It’s really horrible to see.” (Leinwand Leger, 11-14-2011)
The known cases of newborns addicted to prescription painkillers in Florida alone jumped from 354 in 2006 to 1,374 in 2010, and this is just those cases that get reported. As many as 1 in 20 babies born in one semirural community north of Tampa are addicted to painkillers. Doctors typically must re-addict the newborns and then slowly wean them off. (ibid)
A 2012 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found one drug-dependent baby is born every hour in the USA, and that prevalence of this nearly tripled between 2000 and 2009, largely due to prescription drug abuse. Recent state data paints an even more disturbing picture: Like Florida, hospitalizations for the condition in Kentucky skyrocketed from 28 in 2000 to 955 in 2013. Tennessee cases rose tenfold, to 672, between 1999 and 2011 and exceed 700 or so thus far in 2014. Vermont’s rate of drug-dependent infants rose from 3 to 26 per 1,000 deliveries in nine years; Florida’s more than tripled in five years. (Ungar, 10-10-2014) Yet even these numbers don’t capture the true prevalence of this problem. Many (possibly even the majority) of infant addiction cases are never actually recorded in official statistics. Cases only get recorded if doctor’s recognize the signs (and don’t attribute them to something else), and actually take the time to test cord blood or get the mother to confess. This doesn’t always happen, for a variety of reasons.
This builds a child’s brain with more cortisol receptors than normal, meaning they are likely to be more sensitive to stress throughout their life. Furthermore, a fussy baby can cause problems with attachment. From the start it’s likely to set them in the “difficult” category for temperament, which is likely to impair the caregiver-child relationship, something that is already likely to be marginal considering the mother’s drug use. Such predicaments can be overcome, but once again it takes skilled parenting to do so. For babies born with drug addictions, when it rains it pours, and they are unlikely to receive the measure of love and attention needed to overcome a disadvantaged starting point.