The forgotten children

Note: the following post discusses drug use and abuse

It has gripped the nation for the past couple years, with media outlets, local mayors, school systems, and community leaders all talking about it. The president even declared it a “national public health emergency” last year. The opioid epidemic has penetrated the very fabric of America, regardless of race, age, and socioeconomic background, yet most have forgotten the infants and children affected as collateral damage.

The New York Times recently reported on these children, discussing the struggles many opioid-addicted women face when encountering an unexpected pregnancy. How can they circumvent their child from being born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), a condition in which babies experience opioid withdrawal?

Many expectant mothers attempt to curb their drug use patterns; however, it often proves to be difficult. Doctors recommend that opioid-addicted pregnant women use methadone or buprenorphine, both substitutes of opioids, to help wean them off their addiction while also helping their baby experience a better birth and potentially better health outcomes. However, there is a caveat--the child may still be born with NAS, as both replacement drugs are also opioids.

Limited research exists regarding NAS’s long term effects, however preliminary data from ongoing studies suggest that NAS-born infants may hit the normal developmental range in their early childhood. In addition, even if there is a risk for NAS, mothers are able to obtain treatment by using methadone or buprenorphine, which will ultimately improve both the child’s and mother’s health in the long run. Some mothers have even indicated that becoming pregnant gave them an added responsibility and urgency that positively impacted their lives--even turning some of them sober.

However, our society still deals with drug-addicted pregnant mothers punitively. In some states, babies born with NAS may be taken away from their mothers under the pretense of child abuse. The child may either be placed with other family members or in foster care as a result. However, children in foster care can enter an endless cycle into the welfare system, where they are more likely to grow up to become homeless, experience a teen pregnancy, or even abuse their own children if they were abused as a child.

With all this information, it is crucial we take a hard look at how we treat mothers who may be addicted to drugs, and its potential impact on their children. By making these efforts, we can look towards a future where regardless of background, babies grow up to have bright and healthy childhoods.