Prenatal opioid exposure is linked to potentially serious short-term side effects, but researchers are focusing on possible long-term side effects as well.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioid use during pregnancy can result in neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a drug withdrawal syndrome. NAS has been on the rise and there has been an increasing number of opiate-addicted babies born every year in the United States. From 2004 to 2014, there was a five-fold increase in the number of babies born with NAS. We know that following birth, newborns addicted to opiates are more likely to have certain adverse health symptoms. However, we don’t necessarily know as much about the long-term effects of being born addicted to opiates.

Effects of Opioids on Babies at Birth

Elizabeth Conradt, a developmental psychologist at the University of Utah, has been working as part of a National Institutes of Health initiative, to determine the effects of prenatal opioid exposure on childhood outcomes and development. She is studying more than 50 publications to see what’s known thus far and what gaps still exist in our understanding of babies affected by opioid exposure.

Babies born addicted to opioids often have symptoms such as:

  • Feeding problems
  • A high-pitched cry
  • Tremors

Babies exposed to opioids in the womb have a higher likelihood of:

  • Premature birth
  • Seizures
  • Birth defects

Some symptoms of withdrawal can last anywhere from four to six months in more severe instances.

How Opioids Impact Infants

Opioid-addicted babies’ symptoms can start as early as 24 to 48 hours after a baby is born, or it can take as long as five to 10 days for these symptoms to develop. The specific symptoms may vary depending on the number of opioids a baby is exposed to in the womb and other individual factors. Possible symptoms of withdrawal in a full-term baby born addicted to opioids may include:

  • Tremors and trembling
  • Irritability
  • Sleep problems
  • Tight muscle tone
  • Yawning, sneezing and stuffy nose
  • Problems feeding and sucking
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Sweating
  • Fever

Long-Term Effects Beyond Two Years

Conradt and her colleagues sought to learn more about opioid-addicted babies and the long-term effects. Researchers looked at 11 studies of children who were diagnosed with neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome and found that newborns born with withdrawal symptoms were affected in inconsistent ways at birth which made it hard for them to draw solid conclusions.

Then, researchers looked at 21 studies that showed the development of children up to two years old after prenatal opioid exposure. Conradt said she and her colleagues felt more comfortable saying there might not be significant effects of opioid exposure in infancy.

For two years and beyond, Conradt found similar inconsistent results. She assessed 27 studies that looked at cognitive development beyond the age of two. Some studies showed there were significant effects on language ability and IQ, while others didn’t show any major effects. There was more consistency in studies of behavior, however. Children with prenatal exposure to methadone demonstrated higher levels of fear, anxiety and aggression. There was also an association with lower attention span.

Conradt said she wasn’t surprised to see that the long-term effects of being born addicted to opioids were more significant. She said as children get older, they’re challenged more, such as in a school environment, and they may have a more difficult time. Even so, Conradt said that it’s not known whether the effects of behavior are directly related to opioid exposure, to the environment of the children or the interaction between both.

Help for Pregnant Mothers Addicted to Opioids

With the opioid epidemic continuing to rage on and children continuing to be born addicted to opioids, it’s important to look for ways to help pregnant mothers addicted to opioids. There are options specifically geared toward addiction treatment and pregnancy, but women need to know how to access these programs.

Rather than trying to stop suddenly, it’s typically advised that medication-assisted treatment be used. The use of medication-assisted treatment during pregnancy has been shown to improve outcomes for mothers and babies.

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By – Ashley Sutphin
Ashley Sutphin Watkins received her degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Psychology and Journalism. Read more
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Editor – Rob Alston
Rob Alston has traveled around Australia, Japan, Europe, and America as a writer and editor for industries including personal wellness and recovery. Read more

The University of Utah. “What We Don’t Know About Prenatal Opioid Exposure.” August 28, 2019. Accessed September 27, 2019.

Conradt, Elisabeth; et al. “Prenatal Opioid Exposure: Neurodevelopme[…] Research Priorities.” Pediatrics, September 2019. Accessed September 27, 2019.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Dramatic Increases in Maternal Opioid Us[…]tinence Syndrome.” January 2019. Accessed September 27, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.