Infants exposed to opioids during pregnancy face a higher risk of mental and physical disabilities later in their childhood, according to the findings of a new study that raises further concerns about the long-reaching impact of the national opioid epidemic in the U.S.
Australian researchers say children who were exposed to opioids during their mother’s pregnancy had lower IQ scores and suffered physical development problems, the effects of which can last through adolescence. Their findings were published July 12, in the journal JAMA Network Open.
Researchers reviewed data for 26 studies which included 1,400 children exposed to prenatal opioids compared to nearly 3,000 children who were unexposed to opioids in utero. They also analyzed data for motor outcomes and compared 688 children exposed to opioids and 1,500 children not exposed to opioids during pregnancy.
The findings indicate children with prenatal exposure to opioids were associated with lower cognitive scores. Additionally, three times as many children who were exposed to opioids during pregnancy had lower IQs than those who were not exposed.
The largest difference was between ages six months and six years. Lower cognitive scores were seen for children under two and from three to six years, but not children seven to 18 years old.
Children exposed to opioids in utero faced a three-fold risk of having intellectual disability, the researchers determined.
Prenatal opioid exposure can also lead to neonatal abstinence syndrome. This is when infants exposed during pregnancy experience opioid withdrawal after birth. This can lead to low birth weight, underdeveloped lungs, difficulty breathing and smaller than average head size.
The study comes about three years after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first warned about increasing numbers of children born with opioid-induced neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) across the U.S.
Today, roughly every 15 minutes a baby in the United States is born with NAS.
Researchers indicated the findings of the new study suggest prenatal opioid exposure requires long-term support and intervention for children, because that exposure may have long term effects on cognitive function and motor skills.