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1.They’re not addicted.

Babies who were exposed to opioids in the womb are often born physically dependent on the drugs, meaning they will go through withdrawal after birth. But physical dependence is not addiction, a disorder characterized by powerful cravings and a compulsion to keep taking the drugs despite their ruinous effects on the addict’s life. Babies can’t be addicts. A significant minority of newborns exposed to drugs in the womb do not even have withdrawal symptoms, for unknown reasons.

2. Most are healthy.

Drug-exposed babies are typically full-term and not especially fragile. Often doctors don’t see anything wrong until symptoms of withdrawal emerge in the days after birth. Those symptoms include high-pitched cries, irritability, tremors, tight muscles, fast breathing, difficulty feeding, and gastrointestinal problems. Babies in withdrawal need to stay in the hospital for two to four weeks. But they don’t need major medical interventions-- just monitoring, soothing, frequent breastfeeding, and sometimes medication, until the symptoms abate.

3. Their mothers love them.

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Doctors and nurses who work with pregnant addicts says these women are stricken with guilt and shame and want the best for their child. Some cannot control their addiction. But in many cases, the babies are exposed to drugs because their mothers are in recovery and doing the right thing: taking prescribed doses of methadone or buprenorphine to manage their cravings. Although taking those drugs may cause babies to go through withdrawal, doctors agree that stopping the medications during pregnancy is far more dangerous.

4. Most can go home with their mothers.

Hospitals are required to contact the Department of Children and Families whenever a drug-exposed baby is born. The department performs an assessment of the family situation. Sometimes it sees nothing amiss and backs off; sometimes the situation is unsafe and the baby most go into foster care. But more often than not, the mother can take the baby home.

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5. They are not ruined for life.

Little is known about the long-term effects of exposure to opioids in the womb. Some children may develop learning or attention problems. But the most important factor may be the child’s home environment. Poverty, violence, and instability can be more toxic than drugs in the womb, and children raised in stable, loving households are likely to fare well.


Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer