Opioid Addiction's Long-Term Effects On Babies Still Under Study : Shots - Health News Early findings on infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome are reassuring, and doctors are optimistic that normal development can continue. Making sure parents are treated for addiction is key.
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For Babies Of The Opioid Crisis, Best Care May Be Mom's Recovery

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For Babies Of The Opioid Crisis, Best Care May Be Mom's Recovery

For Babies Of The Opioid Crisis, Best Care May Be Mom's Recovery

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All right, to other news now. Researchers estimate that every 15 minutes here in the U.S. a baby is born who is withdrawing from opioids. That statistic, that staggering statistic, raises concerns about how the drugs affect the long-term health of children. There is little research to go on. Sarah Jane Tribble brings us this report.

SARAH JANE TRIBBLE, BYLINE: It seems to be a pretty typical preschool pickup, but it's not.

AMANDA WILLIAMMEE: I like to peek in on her and see what she's doing before she sees me.

TRIBBLE: Amanda Williammee sees her 2-year-old daughter Taycee before opening the classroom door. There's a dance party in progress. Then Taycee spots her mom.


WILLIAMMEE: OK. OK. Did you dance?

TRIBBLE: We are at Horizons in Carrboro, N.C. It's a place where mothers can bring their children and get the residential treatment they need for substance use disorder. Now it's time to pick up Williammee's 6-month-old girl Jayde.

WILLIAMMEE: What has she got?

TRIBBLE: Williammee injected opioids during both of her pregnancies, and her babies were born with neonatal abstinence syndrome. She remembers that withdrawals were harder for toddler Taycee than they've been for Jayde.

WILLIAMMEE: And it wasn't just like we had this two-week period at the hospital of her being sick. Like, it went on for months. She'd sleep for 20 minutes, and then she'd wake up and just be miserable.

TRIBBLE: Today both Taycee and Jayde are developing normally. Still, Williammee worries. How did the drugs affect their tiny bodies and brains? Research is just beginning to point towards the answers. A recent study has found reasons to be positive. Hendree Jones is executive director at Horizons and co-author of that study.

HENDREE JONES: The children through time tended to score within the normal range of the tests that we had.

TRIBBLE: Neonatologist Dr. Stephanie Merhar at Cincinnati Children's Hospital released a separate study. Overall, the children in both short-term studies developed within normal ranges for cognitive, motor and speech development. Merhar's data, though, did show that some children experienced notable delays and hinted that there could be problems down the road.

STEPHANIE MERHAR: It's important to know that there is a risk for some delays and that these kids are monitored closely.

TRIBBLE: But the reason for those delays is unclear, whether it's related to drugs or environment or both. Researchers are quick to point out that fear spread nationwide about the children of the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and early '90s. Dire predictions of developmental delays turned out to be grossly exaggerated, according to the National Institutes of Health. The Horizons treatment center actually had its start back then. Jones says the lives of people who use substances are often chaotic, and that affects their children in a variety of ways.

JONES: It's incredibly difficult to make a simple linear cause and effect between there was a prenatal exposure to opiates; therefore, we see this particular poor birth outcome.

TRIBBLE: Most of the mothers at Horizons took multiple substances when pregnant and also experienced trauma, abuse or neglect in their own childhoods. And Jones says that can be hard to overcome.

JONES: They haven't had positive role models. You know, I think there's oftentimes an unrealistic expectation by society. They're supposed to automatically know how to be, quote, unquote, "good mothers," how to be nurturing mothers. And that's like trying to teach somebody algebra when they've never even had addition.

TRIBBLE: That's why Horizons pairs parenting classes with addiction treatment. Williammee began in February. On a recent afternoon, Jayde and Taycee are napping. Her apartment has the feel of home. There's a Pack 'n Play near the dining room table, baby bottles drying on the kitchen counter. She takes a deep breath before answering a question about why this is her third try at Horizons.

WILLIAMMEE: It's going to work. It is because I've got a lot of tools to take with me and to stay clean instead of using drugs.

TRIBBLE: And Child Protective Services has threatened to take Taycee and Jayde.

WILLIAMMEE: I'm not just some drug addict. I'm a mother of two kids. And I feel like I'm a great mother. I have educational goals I plan to accomplish. I plan on being a productive human being in our society.

TRIBBLE: A paper following babies up to 2 years old is expected out later this year. But national experts say there is no long-term research underway that watches children as they go through grade school and beyond. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Jane Tribble.


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