Prenatal Opioid Exposure Could Lead To Developmental Problems

Infants exposed to opioids during pregnancy have a higher risk of experiencing long-term physical effects and mental impairments, according to the findings of a new study.

In recent years, more and more people have been affected by the continuing opioid epidemic, as overdose rates have soared and account for 70% of all drug overdose deaths. The toll also affects unborn babies who suffer from opioid use by their mothers.

In a study published June 28 in the journal JAMA Network Open, researchers studied 8,500 mother-child pairs in the Boston Birth Cohort who received prenatal and medical care at the Boston Medical Center beginning in 1998.

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Mothers self-reported their use of opioids or had a clinical diagnosis of neonatal abstinence syndrome. A total of 3,100 children continued to receive pediatric care after birth at Boston Medical Center and were included in postnatal outcomes.

Roughly 5% of children had in utero opioid exposure. The data indicates in utero exposure to opioids increased an infant’s risk of impaired fetal growth, meaning they grew at a much slower pace than other infants. Opioid exposure also increased their risk of preterm birth and impaired physiological development.

Researchers also noted the exposure increased a child’s risk of developing a conduct disorder or emotional disturbance during the preschool years; doubling the risk of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) for school-aged children as well.

Opioid Abuse Concerns

Research has shown opioid use among pregnant women has increased nationally. Prior research has shown use increased from 1.5 out of every 1,000 births to six out of every 1,000 births.

Infants born to women who use opioids during pregnancy often are born addicted to opioids and can go through withdrawal symptoms. They may also experience breathing problems, tremors, and fever. They can also experience serious birth defects. One study linked maternal opioid use to gastroschisis, when the infant’s intestines are formed outside the body.

Despite the findings of the new study, it isn’t clear whether the mother’s opioid use is fully responsible for the side effects to the child. Typically, opioid addiction is often accompanied by other drug or alcohol use. This can also affect a child’s development.

In recent years, many opioids are cut with fentanyl, which is one of the most lethal and potent narcotic drugs. Similarly, environmental factors such as nutrition and stress can also play a role.

Researchers emphasized it is important for doctors to try to catch opioid addiction before pregnancy, but even treatments during pregnancy can help reduce and infant’s risk of side effects and birth defects.


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