Misusing drugs and alcohol is dangerous for a person’s mental and physical well-being. However, when a pregnant woman misuses substances, the life of the child can be in danger. Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) consists of the physical and emotional difficulties that occur when a baby is exposed to harmful substances, like drugs or alcohol, that were ingested by the mother during the pregnancy. NAS can result in impaired vision, coordination disabilities, and behavioral issues within the infant. In addition, infants born with NAS have a higher risk of  becoming addicted to substances in the future compared to children born without substances in their system.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Diagnosis

When a child is born, the baby may begin to experience withdrawal symptoms from the substance(s) their mother consumed during the pregnancy. While children can get this disease from mothers who consume illicit drugs, this disease can also present itself due to a pregnant mother using prescription painkillers to alleviate pain.

Along with prescription opioids, there are a variety of drugs that can cause a baby to be born with NAS. These drugs include:

If a woman discovers that she is pregnant while addicted to a substance, it is important that she immediately seeks a medical professional to receive assistance before the child is born. Continued drug use, addiction or not, could be detrimental to the health of the baby.

Even though babies born with NAS can be carried their full term, they are most likely to be born with a lower birth weight than a healthy baby. When the affected child is born they are also likely to have breathing and feeding issues along with seizures that can randomly occur. The defects that the drug consumption causes will make a newborn need around-the-clock supervision, requiring them stay in the hospital for longer periods of time.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Symptoms

If there is a suspicion that a baby has NAS butis not tested at birth, several signs and symptoms can be indicators that something is wrong. Some of these symptoms can begin to appear within the first 72 hours following birth. A child experiencing any of these symptoms may possibly have NAS:

  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Twitching
  • Muscle tightening
  • Fussiness
  • High-pitched cry
  • Inability to feed at a normal rate
  • Fast breathing
  • Fever
  • Excessive sweating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Trouble breathing

The kind of symptoms a child experiences depends on the severity of the addiction the mother had to a substance. The severity of symptoms will also be determined by which substance the mother was consuming, how much of it she used, and how long it was used for. Another sign that a child can be born with NAS is if the child is born prematurely. Since each person reacts to substances differently, the baby can react differently as well.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Scoring

A common way to test if a child is born with NAS is through a urine or stool sample. However, the most precise way to determine if the condition is present in a newborn is through the Finnegan Scoring System. This system allows physicians to track  the symptoms displayed throughout the early hours of the baby’s life in order to figure out if the baby is suffering with NAS, and how the baby needs to be treated if so. Depending on the substance that has been ingested by the baby, tracking can begin as early as the first two hours after birth. With each symptom, babies score between one and five, with five being the most severe. Each symptom is monitored and scored every few hours to help doctors gain a better perspective on the baby’s physical condition. Once a final number is determined, an individualized course of treatment can begin.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Effects on Development

NAS has the power to severely impact more than a child’s physical health. Along with the possibility of serious, lasting physical health effects, a child can also feel the emotional effects. Children that have not been treated are likely to experience problems with their vision and hearing, or both. They can also experience impaired motor functions, such as muscle spasms or impaired speech. They can become very impulsive and hyperactive along with having short attention spans and exhibit poor memory. Children can also experience poor perceptual, verbal and cognitive skills. If this is not treated in an effective timeframe, the untreated child faces the risk of also developing a drug addiction in the future.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Assessment and Management

In order to help prevent a child from being born with NAS is to consult a medical professional. If a pregnant mother suddenly quits taking drugs, the effects on the child can be deadly as withdrawal symptoms can begin once the baby is born. The baby is not strong enough to withstand the severity of the symptoms, which can ultimately lead to the child’s inability to fight against it to survive. It is important to consult with a doctor if pregnancy amidst an addiction occurs, in order to reduce the health risks to the fetus and infant following birth.

In order for a healthy baby to be born, the mother must be in good health as well. For those who are interested in conceiving a child but struggle to manage their addiction, it is recommended they seek treatment at a rehab facility. Getting help through a rehab center is beneficial because of the amount of resources that are available, including individual therapy, group counseling and recreational therapeutic activities. Ridding the body of any toxins that may inhibit a child’s development can also reduce the risks of NAS at birth.

Drug Rehab for New Mothers

If you or a loved one are interested in becoming a mother but continue to struggle with substance misuse, The Recovery Village can help. Our facilities offer individualized and effective care that is tailored to your specific situation. Representatives are available to answer any questions you may have regarding programs, insurance providers and facility locations. Begin your road to recovery and call The Recovery Village today.


Burch, Kelly. “Record Amount of Cocaine Seized During 2016.” The Fix, 2 Mar. 2017, https://www.thefix.com/record-amount-coc[…]e-seized-during-2016. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.

CESAR (Center for Substance Abuse Research). “Cocaine.” CESAR (Center for Substance Abuse Research), 29 Oct. 2013, https://www.cesar.umd.edu/cesar/drugs/cocaine.asp. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.

Doward, Jamie. “Warning of Extra Heart Dangers from Mixing Cocaine and Alcohol.” The Guardian, 7 Nov. 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2009[…]mixture-health-risks. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.

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.