For most of the time, when people talk about the effect of drug abuse by pregnant women, much attention is placed on the overall impact it will have on the unborn child. The discussion is usually concerning general body development such as low birth weight, congenital disabilities, smaller head circumference, preterm birth and in some cases, fatal effects like stillbirths and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Less attention is usually given to the probability that the newborn baby could be addicted to the drugs the mother has been using. Which raises the question, are there babies born addicted to drugs? The short answer to this is yes, and the numbers involved make for grim reading.

With the prevalence of drug abuse involving both hard drugs like cocaine and heroin as well as prescription drugs and the use of alcohol and tobacco, the number of pregnant women who are addicted to drugs is on the rise. In the US, it is estimated that for every 19 seconds, a baby addicted to drugs is born in America. For the baby, after months of being exposed to opioids by the mother, its first experience outside the womb is the withdrawal from the drugs. This results in anguishing pain for the baby and other difficulties is what is known as Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.

Causes of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

This condition occurs due to the mother’s addiction and the connection of the fetus to the mother through the placenta. Just as nutrition is passed from the mother to the kid through the placenta so too are the drugs. Through this connection, the drugs that make the mother dependent on them, also have the unborn baby hooked on them. Upon birth, with the absence of the drugs, the baby’s central nervous system becomes dysregulated and overstimulated. This results in the infant baby experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

Symptoms Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

The intensity of the symptoms and how they manifest themselves in the newborn baby varies among infants depending on the drug or drugs the mother was on and for how long they were exposed to them. They may set in within 24 hours after birth or even ten days later. General withdrawal symptoms include high-pitched crying, jitteriness, tremors, gagging, vomiting, color changes, hiccupping, convulsions, difficulty sleeping, dehydration, fast breathing among many. These symptoms could last weeks or even up to six months.


The long-term effects of addiction on the babies has been hard to collect and reach a substantive conclusion due to the difficulty in secluding the numerous independent factors involved. However, several observations have drawn similar findings in many aspects. The babies born addicted to drugs tend to have delays in development and can also be impaired intellectually. The most affected areas in development include motor delays which mean the babies are slow to attain independent sitting and standing. They also tend to have shorter attention spans and poor social engagement.


Treatment for the affected babies is done through medication for several cases to help with the pain while in the rest of the cases it can be achieved without medication using therapeutic strategies like skin-to-skin care.


There are babies born addicted to the drugs and this results in them experiencing painful withdrawal symptoms that may have long-term effects. While treatment is possible to help with the pain, it is much better if the mothers avoid drugs for the term of the pregnancy and also inform their doctors of all medications including prescription drugs they may be using.