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Born Addicted: Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

The average age of addicted women giving birth is 17-25

The average age of addicted
women giving birth is 17-25

Addicted moms are directly passing opiate and other drug dependencies to their unborn babies, causing severe damage. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the average number of addicted babies born each year ranges from 100,000 to 375,000. In Florida, the Agency of Health Care Administration (AHCA) reports that from 2003-2006 there was a 173% increase in the number of babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). These babies have substance abuse withdrawal symptoms at birth and their mortality rate is 2.5% greater than their non-addicted peers.

Pregnant and Addicted

The average age of addicted women giving birth is 17-25. Their most common addiction is opioid pain medications. However, many moms are also poly-substance abusers.

As with any addict, these women generally have an underlying cause that led to their addictions. Many of these moms have a history of physical abuse, sexual abuse or may have grown up with a parent who was an addict. The cycle of addiction translates into history repeating in the next generation. Socioeconomic status, education level and family problems are also contributing factors to increased substance abuse among pregnant women.

Oftentimes, addicted moms are looked down on by society because they have addicted babies, even though they love and adore their children. Moms are able to recognize that their actions have directly contributed to the painful first moments of their babies’ lives and show remorse.

Medical professionals do not recommend that addicted pregnant moms quit drugs cold turkey, rather they suggest going on a maintenance medication like methadone or Suboxone in an attempt to stop the addiction. Unfortunately, even if a mom attempts to correct the issue, her baby is still born addicted and will have to endure a withdrawal process.

Newborn Drug Withdrawal Symptoms

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) is the diagnosis the medical community has attributed to what addicted newborns endure. It can last anywhere from 1 week to 6 months and has been described by neonatal nurses as a period of “inconsolable pain”. It is a result of the drugs used by the mother being passed through the placenta to the unborn baby during pregnancy. The effects of the drug are also passed in this way and the baby becomes dependent on the drug just like a substance abuser develops an addiction. Withdrawal symptoms can be experienced within 48-72 hours after birth or take up to 8 days before they present themselves.

Withdrawal Symptoms:

  • Low Birth Weight
  • Dehydration
  • Seizures
  • Tremors
  • Muscle Cramping
  • Vomiting/Diarrhea
  • Poor Feeding
  • Poor Sleep Patterns

Withdrawal symptoms ravage babies’ tiny bodies and contribute to increased chances of death. The risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is present with all types of drug use, excluding stimulants. Also, the impact of NAS on children is long-term. If withdrawal symptoms don’t begin to decrease in a timely fashion, some babies have to be put on detox medications until symptoms subside.

Long-Term Implications of NAS:

  • Neurological Disorders
  • Increased Number of Hospitalizations
  • Respiratory Disorders
  • Delayed Social Skills
  • Behavioral Problems
  • 70% Chance of Becoming a Drug Addict

Physical, emotional and mental issues plague children who have been born addicted.

Addiction Treatment for Babies

Most hospitals follow a protocol when treating addicted newborns. While there are tips on how to calm an irritable baby suffering from withdrawal, some may require detox medications. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) report that the two most common detox medications used are methadone and morphine. As with any addict going through drug detox, addicted babies’ detox will depend on the type of drug, frequency, quantity and duration of use.

Goals of NAS Treatment:

  • Shortened Hospital Stay
  • Shortened Exposure Time to Detox Drugs
  • Lowered Hospital Costs
  • Improved Parenting Skills
    • Maternal Infant Bonding
    • Lessened Maternal Guilt


The Journal of the American Medical Association published a report documenting that 13,500 babies were born with NAS in 2009. The medical community is documenting a growing number of newborns diagnosed with NAS in correlation with the growing number of women addicted to prescription medication.

Rahi, E., Baneshi, M., Mirkamandar, E., Maghsoudi, S. and Rastegari, A.(2011). A comparison between APGAR scores and birth weight in infants of addicted and non-addicted mothers. Addiction and Health,( 3)1-2.

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