Babies Exposed To Opioids In Utero May Face Developmental Delays

By Kelly Burch 03/15/18

A new study examined the neurodevelopment of toddlers who had been treated for neonatal abstinence syndrome. 

Sleeping newborn baby in the hand of mother close-up.

Infants who were exposed to opioids in utero and were treated for chemical dependency once they were born, are more likely to be developmentally delayed and to be cross-eyed, according to a new study. 

The study, published in the Journal of Perinatology, found that infants who were exposed to opioids had higher rates of cognitive, motor and language delays by age two. This was true for infants whose mothers used heroin and other street drugs, and those whose mothers used prescribed opioids like methadone.

Drugs like methadone are often prescribed to pregnant women who were using opioids, because withdrawing from opioids can threaten the pregnancy. 

The research, conducted at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, looked at 87 toddlers who had been treated for neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), which occurs when a baby is born dependent on opioids. 

"These children are at risk for developmental delay," Dr. Stephanie Merhar, a neonatologist at Cincinnati Children's and the lead author of the study, told the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Merhar added that although the toddlers scored significantly lower than average, their scores were generally on the lower end of the normal range, making it more difficult to spot their delays. 

"These are not the kids who are so obviously developmentally delayed," Merhar said. "You might not know it.”

Toddlers who were living with foster or adoptive families scored slightly higher than those who were living with their biological mother, the study found. Merhar said that this shouldn’t be used to justify removing babies who were born dependent on opioids, but that it does show the need to provide greater support for parents and babies from birth. 

“We encourage close medical follow up and screening early-on for delays," she said.

Two-year-old Ava, of Reading, Ohio, was born dependent on opioids. She went home with her adoptive mother at just two days old, but she remains about 18 months behind in her language development, according to her mother, Meichelle Hunley. 

Hunley said that she started noticing Ava’s delays when the baby was around 7 months. Ava often points and screams when she wants something because she is not able to verbally express what she wants or needs. 

“She maybe has 10 words in her vocabulary that she doesn’t use regularly but that she can physically say,” Hunley said. 

Through early intervention, Ava is learning sign language in hopes of being able to improve her communication.

Merhar, the study author, said that researchers could not say whether the developmental delays associated with opioid exposure would last as the children aged, or whether they could be outgrown. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.