The problem of infants being born addicted to drugs because of their mother’s addictions has been a growing health problem in the United States for several decades. During the 1980s and 1990s, medical settings were seeing large numbers of babies being born addicted to crack, but in modern times, the drugs of choice for addicted mothers which are passed on to their infants in utero have tended to be prescription painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin (Szabo.) This paper will discuss the growing incidence of drug addicted babies and the health problems that ensue after they are born.

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In the United States, nearly 3.4 out of every 1000 infants born in a hospital in 2009 experienced the sort of drug withdrawal usually seen in the babies of pregnant women who abuse narcotic pain medications, according to a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association (Szabo.) That figure represents approximately 13,500 infants per year, and is equivalent to a drug addicted baby born each hour. From a financial perspective, this is a problem that falls on the public to finance, because treating newborns that are addicted to drugs mostly requires the use of the Medicaid program, costing nearly $720 million in 2009 (National Institute on Drug Abuse.) Infants who experience symptoms of withdrawal are experiencing what has been termed “neonatal abstinence syndrome,” which causes a different array of symptoms from those which are the result of cocaine use. Illegal opiates including heroin can also produce the symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome, but the current problem is occurring because there has been a tremendous surge of prescription drug abuse in the United States over the last decade.

Infants who have been exposed to drugs in utero tend to have more health problems than other babies; for example, 31% of drug exposed newborns tend to have breathing problems, as compared to 9% of babies who were not exposed to drugs. Babies of addicted mothers also tend to have low birth weight: 19% of this population is below average weight when born, as opposed to only 7% of infants who are born to non-addicted mothers. In addition, these babies tend to have feeding problems as well as seizures, in addition to a wide range of other health problems that begin affecting them at birth.

The problem with drug addicted babies has increased so tremendously because over the last decade, sales for opiate pain relievers such as OxyContin and Vicodin have quadrupled (University Of Michigan Health Center.) There are a variety of factors that are likely to be responsible for the dramatic rise in the use of these drugs, ranging from their frequent misuse and overuse to treat chronic pain to illegal sales of these products on the street. Generally, according to the latest research, the population of mothers who are using opiates increased five times during the last 10 years.

Health professionals describe being able to stand in the hallway of their hospitals and having the ability to identify which infants are going through withdrawal. They are described as irritable, their cries are different from those of the other children, and they seem to be uncomfortable (University Of Michigan Health System.) The typical hospital bill for babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome rose from over $39,000 in the year 2000 to $53,000 in 2009, an increase of 35%. In addition, more than three quarters of the charges for infants with this syndrome were charged to Medicaid, making it a significant taxpayer issue (University Of Michigan Health System.) These hospitalizations are longer and more expensive, and involve a wide range of complex medical interventions to help them survive and to overcome the deficits that accompany them when they are born.

Prescription painkillers have become a significant health threat, causing many more overdose deaths than heroin and cocaine combined. Because drug addicted mothers pass their addictions onto their infants in utero, the babies come into the world with substantial challenges including questionable survival rates. The numbers of drug addicted infants have increased significantly during the last decade, and it would benefit all involved to establish public policy to address the problem using methods such as educating pregnant women about the potential for significant harm to their babies if their drug use continues. In addition, hospitals must be equipped to treat these infants by having trained staff on hand to provide the kind of specialized care needed by these babies. Finally, another way to address this problem is prevention, such as educating women who are using drugs about the negative effects on the fetus, and the need to avoid becoming pregnant if they persist in using drugs.

  • National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Maternal Opiate Use and Newborns Suffering from Opiate Withdrawal Are on the Rise in the US.” October 2012. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Web. 22 January 2015.
  • Szabo, Lisa. “Number of Painkiller-Addicted Newborns Triples and 10 Years.” 29 April 2012. USA Today. Web. 22 January 2015.
  • University Of Michigan Health System. “About One Baby Born Each Hour Addicted to Opiate Drugs in the US.” 30 April 2012. Science Web. 22 January 2015.