The fate of drug-addicted babies

On Friday and Saturday, a few of us in Melissa’s lab went to Mount Desert Island, Maine for a neurobiological conference where I presented a poster from my research in the lab this past year.  A neonatal nurse from Maine Medical Center was very interested in our lab’s work with the nutrient, choline as it is shown to increase neurogenesis and enhance learning and memory.  She does work specifically with drug-addicted babies.  I became fascinated (and saddened) by the stories she told about the babies she sees who are in drug withdrawal when they are born, that is, they show similar symptoms of withdrawal in drug addictions – irritability, convulsions, sleep abnormalities, etc.  Clearly something needs to be done.  Why should these babies be compromised because of poor decisions on behalf of their mothers?  It seems so unfortunate that these babies should be compromised and immediately exposed to addicted mothers… it seems as though we already know their fate.  I did a little research exploring these different questions.

A study conducted by Chasnoff, Hatcher, and Burns, titled “Poly-drug and methadone-addicted newborns: a continuum of impairment?” looked at the effects of babies born to drug addicted mothers. Group 1 babies were born to mothers on well-controlled, low-dose methadone treated mothers.  Methadone is a common prescription drug used to wean addicts off of morphine and heroin addiction.  Group 2 babies were those born to poly-drug abusing mothers, and Group 3 babies were born to normal healthy control mothers. 12 infants in group 1 required withdrawal therapy.  Occurrences of congenital malformations were present in groups 1 and 2 and hernias and deformities.  Group 1 infants had statistically significant smaller sizes of head circumference.  These babies also showed more behavioral signs of depression (Chasnoff et al., 2001).   Clearly, these findings suggest that these drug-addicted babies are severely compromised and will have long-term effects.  However, it seems impossible to stop addicts from having babies while they are addicted, but a recent project is undertaking this great task.

Project Prevention is a national non-profit organization started by Barbara Harris in 1997.  The goal of this organization is to eradicate substance-exposed births by paying drug addicts and alcoholics $300 in cash to sterilize themselves or use long-term birth control methods.  It has paid more than 3,000 clients (29 are men) in about 39 states.  Harris and her organization were in Honolulu in early March of this year and the organization had a writeup in the local newspaper.  It is stated in this online newspaper that Harris believes that “nobody has the right to push his or her addiction onto an innocent baby” (

Her initiative has manifested in her beliefs.  What a great idea, but can this really work?  The project’s website ( gives readers their statistics as of March 26th, 2010 (just a few weeks ago from today!).

Here are some of them:

Total number of clients paid : 3,359

Total number of pregnancies among these clients: 14, 718

Total number of births: 10,291 (the rest of the pregnancies resulted in abortion or stillborn births).

Obviously, something needs to be done and this may be a great start.  There is also the question of whether the drug-addicted mothers should have the right to keep their drug-addicted babies?  Or will they revert back to their poor habits and perpetuate the problem.  Most addicts come from a background in which they have felt neglect, sorrow, and physical and emotional abuse.   Thus, their children may grow up feeling these same emotions. The problem gets worse.  I will leave you with a video that I thought was interesting:

18 thoughts on “The fate of drug-addicted babies

  1. Sars, that was a really powerful video. I was so disturbed by the baby at the end of the video, where you could see his skin wrinkling on his legs. It was very sad to watch. I wonder if giving the addicted mothers choline during their pregnancy and even in the first weeks of the baby’s life would help them in the future or decrease their suffering of withdrawal symptoms. I think that would be interesting to look at, and it possibly already has?


  2. That’s a good idea, Natasha. I was able to find one study (Slotkin, Seidler Qiao, Aldridge, Tate, Cousins, Proskocil, Sekhon, Clark, Lupo & Spindel, 2005) that found that prenatal choline supplementation had mixed effects on the babies of pregnant rhesus monkeys addicted to nicotine. Cell damage in some areas was protected by choline supplementation, but in other areas choline supplementation actually made damage worse. The experiment also used vitamin C supplementation, which also had mixed results depending on the brain region.


  3. Wow! That was a startling video matched with crazy statistics that makes me cringe at the thought of addicted babies.

    Hopefully, Melissa and i will be able to add to this aspect of choline research and addiction next year!


  4. thanks for sharing this. it is so heartbreaking to see this happening in babies. especially since they have no say whatsoever as to what they are exposed to in utero.


  5. I am caring for children who were born to a drug effected mother and it is tough. One has more lasting damage than the other as the drugs were more powerful ones for the older child. Her developmental delay is strong and her behavioural problems are severe. This is a lasting issue that doesnt go away after the hospital has helped the child. It is so so sad, and i am a strong believer that there needs to be earlier intervention for these unborn babies. Someone with the relevant powers needs to make some tough decisions on protecting the babie once conception is relized, not waiting for them to be born. The rights of the mothers come first and that just doesnt seem right to me when the child lives with the conequences. :((


    1. Is there a support group for those who care for addicted babies? I foster a child who is 3 and really delayed it is so frustrating.


  6. I am a third grade teacher and I have at least one drug baby every year. How can I research this to inform not only my instruction, but that of parents. I teach in a high poverty school and many lack resources. How can I help these kids?


  7. how can you find information regarding the long-term effects. Here is why i am a 30 year old female, that was born addicted to opioids, benzodiazepines, and i have adhd gad, and a hole mess of other crap wrong with me. I wanted to ready if it was the drugs that made me who i am today, or if it was being raised by addicts and that lifestyle. Nature/Nurture or both ??


    1. Helen, I’m on the same search. I want answers if being born a drug baby has caused me to become sick with certain illnesses, emotional, and mental problems. I have a large amount of health problems, along with depression and anxiety and other more specific emotional things going on. I can’t find anything that shows if certain health problems are related to being a drug baby or not. This seems like an endless search. I’m really sick and don’t know why.
      It’s sad I’m not the only one but comforting as well


  8. Tom
    I know of a pregnant girl (17 maybe) that is a heroin addict, lives with her mom, boyfriend, and mom’s hubby, retired cop. Judge sentences her to rehab and she never finishes, multiple times. Cop keeps her from jail. He gives her $ to go to the mall, (right). we all know where she’s going ! This is called enabling. The chance of deforming or killing that unborn child hurts me sooo bad, am crying…I wouldn’t do that to a dog. she should go to prison for murder !!


  9. I was born to a heroin addicted mother in 1991, and immediately placed into an incubator in ICU to undergo weaning treatment for 6 weeks. For these six weeks the only physical contact I received was that of nurses changing my tubes, and once a day my family were permitted to touch me through the sides of the incubator, only when wearing protective gloves. I’m no psychologist but the psychological effects I’ve suffered throughout my life down to this lack of crucial skin to skin contact, and physical contact with my family, have never left me. Now 23 I still feel alone, isolated and anxious even though my mother has passed away, and I have a ‘loving’ family remain. I find physical contact hard, and hugs are almost impossible. I’d love to talk to any of you who are interested, even if you can just help me try and understand how I’m supposed to feel, and maybe some advice on how to move forward. Thanks to you all.


    1. Hello Clare. I was so moved to read your post that I had to reply. I’m now a granny to a lovely little 3 year old – adopted just before he was 2. His beginnings were like yours but now he’s on the receiving end of unconditional love – in spite of some behavioural & sleep problems. He’s learning to love and be loved. I really feel for you as your first weeks were starved of love & contact and it seems you are spending your life trying to catch up on that loss.
      I feel that no matter how old we are we are all children at heart. We need to be loved, needed & wanted. Me, I’m coming up for 61 and I’m always up for a big hug & a cuddle. You yourself ARE loved and cared for, but it’s difficult for you to believe it & accept it.
      Do you love, hug & cuddle in spite of finding it hard to do?
      If you’re feeling out of things you could get a dog or a cat that can rely on you totally for everything. It’s amazing what the unconditional love of an animal can do for your self esteem! You can snuggle up together on the sofa & have long conversations where your four-footed friend will always agree with you & think you are the best. They rely on you for food & shelter & you rely on them for the emotional food which is love.
      If you can have a little dog you will always have an excuse to go for a walk & you’ll invariably meet other dog owners who are keen to talk about their tail-wagging treasure. You receive what you give which may mean you have to try harder in giving in order to receive.
      If you can’t manage a real animal I suggest you buy yourself the biggest fluffiest teddy bear you can & teach yourself to talk to it & cuddle it – it wont answer back & wont need feeding & vet’s jabs either!
      So Clare, be kind to yourself & I wish you well for the future, but most of all I wish you love. XX


    2. Hi Clare,

      Id really like to chat. If you’d still like to speak let me know how best to get in touch and we can talk.


    3. Clare, I’m on the same search. I want answers if being born a drug baby has caused me to become sick with certain illnesses, emotional, and mental problems. I have a large amount of health problems, along with depression and anxiety and other more specific emotional things going on. I can’t find anything that shows if certain health problems are related to being a drug baby or not. This seems like an endless search. I’m really sick and don’t know why.
      It’s sad I’m not the only one but it’s comforting as well.

      I am 37 and still don’t know how to feel. My story is similar but I was left untreated because I was born at home. No Dr or hospital to help my withdrawals. I’m now a mother of a teenage girl. I’m still searching for answers, that’s what brought me here. Have you found anything in your search?


  10. I started searching the web answers to one question. What are the long term effects of a baby born to subutex? I really haven’t found the answer. I did come upon this page, and read it and watched the video. I have custody of my 20 month old nephew, his mom did pain pills while first pregnant. She went to the Dr. and he told her that she could not come off the pain pills, because the withdraws that the baby would have would be greater than anything she had ever went through. He sent her to another Dr. and that one put her on subutex. in which she abused! The baby was born and after 48 hours the nurses said that he was going through withdraws and moved him to the NICU and started morphine on him. He was in the hospital 5 weeks, and then came home. His mother had a whole support team living in the same house as her, and as you can guess she continued to do drugs and was kick out of the house, her and baby went to live with dad, and his mom, and was kicked out of there as well. anyway, now have the baby, I believe that while she has been alone with him and shooting up that she may have given some to him. he is a very smart child, but really a hand full!! He doesn’t go to mom or dads, both still using. plus they brought him to me and never returned! but when he visits grandparents house it takes me several days to get him back on schedule, plus they give him Melatonin to make him sleep all night. I just want to make sure he is protected from any drug effects!


  11. I adopted my three nephews who were all born addicted, when they were infants. I would love to find a support group for this !


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