Can Pre-Birth Opioid Exposure Lead To Learning Disorders?

By Beth Leipholtz 09/06/18

A new study examined the potential link between pre-birth opioid exposure and developmental issues. 

a frustrated kid staring at a pile of books.

Children born to mothers using opioids may grow up to demonstrate difficulty learning, a new study has found.

The study examined the potential long-term issues for infants born to mothers who used opioids while pregnant, according to NBC News.

The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that one in seven children affected by a mother using opioids needed to be placed in special education classrooms for various issues, including developmental issues and speech delay. In comparison, one in 10 children who were not exposed to opioids before birth required the same. 

About 7,200 children from Tennessee’s Medicaid program were involved in the study, ranging in age from 3 to 8 years old. Of those children, nearly 2,000 were born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS)—or, in simpler terms, withdrawal from opioids due to a mother’s use.

Tennessee has been greatly affected by the opioid epidemic, which is reflected in the number of infants exposed to opioids before birth. In 1999, it was one per 1,000 infants. But in 2015, it was 13 per 1,000.

Researchers said they took specific factors into account like birth weight and mother’s education and tobacco use, but that those did not change the results. 

According to study co-author Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University, the results make sense, as other studies have determined that there are brain differences in children affected by opioids while in utero. 

Dr. Mary-Margaret Fill, lead author and a researcher with Tennessee's health department, tells NBC News that affected children “are definitely not doomed. There are great programs and services that exist to help these children and their families. We just have to make sure they get plugged in."

Because the study was focused in Tennessee, it’s not clear if the results are similar in other U.S. states, and no other studies with the same focus have been conducted in the country. 

However, a similar study was conducted in Australia last year, and found that children exposed to opioids before birth had worse academic scores in seventh grade in comparison to others their age. The U.S. study did not examine academic performance.

Dr. Matthew Davis, co-chair of the Opioid Task Force at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, tells the Chicago Tribune that the study results should serve as a sign that opioid use affects a wide range.

“There’s a sense that the opioid epidemic is somebody else’s problem, but it affects more than those who take the drugs,” Davis said. “I hope the study is a wake-up call, so people understand that this epidemic is a community-level, multigenerational problem that will only grow if we don’t take the proper steps to address it.”

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.