Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome: How Drugs Harm Babies


Every year, thousands of people struggle with substance abuse, but infants are the most tragically affected. Neonatal abstinence syndrome impacts thousands of babies every year, and the mothers of those children may not be aware of the damage substance abuse can do to a newborn child.

What Is Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome?

Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) is a condition that may be found in newborn infants born to mothers who abuse drugs during pregnancy. Because mother and child are connected by the placenta, an infant can become addicted to the same substances used by the mother. Once the child is born, they no longer receive an influx of the drug and begin to suffer withdrawal symptoms.

Different substances have different chances of causing neonatal abstinence syndrome. Opiates such as heroin tend to affect over half of children exposed during pregnancy. Cocaine has a lower chance of causing NAS, but the toxic nature presents more of a risk. Alcohol abuse may cause a variety of birth defects as well as inducing withdrawal.

Babies who suffer from neonatal abstinence syndrome exhibit a variety of symptoms. They are unable to communicate their discomfort as adults are, so it is important to watch for these signs:

  • Sweating and trembling
  • Sleep issues
  • Excessive or high-pitched crying
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Fever
  • Difficulty feeding

Symptoms like these may be a sign of neonatal abstinence syndrome, and the infant should be examined by a physician. Unfortunately, many women who abuse substances while pregnant may not be aware of the risks involved until after the baby is born.

How Many Babies Suffer from NAS?

In 2012, 21,732 infants were born suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome associated with opioids, which equals about 1 every 25 minutes. In 2000, the rate of NAS-affected babies was 1.2 per 1000, and it rose to 5.8 in 2012, a five-fold increase.

Infants born with NAS remained in the hospital for 16.9 days on average, as opposed to 2.1 days for infants without NAS. This incredible rise in affected infants indicates more women are abusing substances during pregnancy, but there are treatments that can help a baby endure neonatal abstinence syndrome.

How Can Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Be Treated?

If a mother chooses to find help during pregnancy, there are medications which can be safely administered to help both mother and child with withdrawal symptoms. Methadone and buprenorphine have shown to be effective in the treatment of opioid dependence, with those whose mothers took buprenorphine showing milder symptoms of NAS when born.

For infants born with NAS, treatment depends upon the type of substance used by the mother, relative health of the infant and tolerance to medications. For many children, simple measures like swaddling may provide comfort during the withdrawal process. Higher caloric intake and IV fluids may be necessary if the child becomes dehydrated from intense vomiting and diarrhea. For infants with severe symptoms, medication may be administered from the same group as the drug used during pregnancy, such as buprenorphine for a child suffering heroin withdrawal.

Neonatal abstinence syndrome is preventable, but it requires mothers to make a choice for better living, both for themselves and their child. During pregnancy, every day counts, and choosing to seek help may protect your baby from NAS.

justin ahlmann