Newborn babies exposed in the womb to heroin and other opiates face an uncertain future, but it has little to do with the drugs in their system.

To be sure, withdrawal is nasty, and it’s hard to imagine that experience for an infant only hours old.

But hospitals have become very adept at treating newborn withdrawal, and research suggests that drug-exposed babies carry no negative health impacts past the rough first weeks.

The problems come, however, when the baby goes home to a household upended by addiction, and a childhood more likely marked by abuse and neglect.

That makes it imperative for the state to meet this problem with policies that help expectant mothers find and remain in treatment, so the baby is born and grows up in a stable home.

Fortunately, better access to treatment is also the best way to end the drug epidemic, and all its other symptoms.


The number of Maine babies born with signs of drug withdrawal, a condition known as “neonatal abstinence syndrome,” has experienced a staggering rise, from 178 in 2006 to 995 so far this year, leading Gov. Paul LePage to convene a meeting on the issue next month in Portland.

Treating neonatal abstinence syndrome is expensive – as of 2009, nationwide, the hospital stay for a newborn with the condition costs an average of $53,000, five times more than a normal birth. In almost 80 percent of the cases, it is paid for by taxpayer-funded Medicaid.

And it is certainly difficult to think about.

Once the withdrawal has passed, however, the newborns are as healthy as any other, most researchers say.

But if the babies then go home to parents who are still using drugs, or if they are taken from their mothers and placed in state custody, they face a much different outlook.

To make sure that happens as little as possible, pregnant women who are addicted to drugs must have access to treatment, without judgment or threats.

With an innocent child involved, that can be difficult.

After an increase in drug-exposed babies similar to Maine’s, legislators in Tennessee, falling to understandable but misguided emotions, passed a law with harsh penalties for women who use drugs during pregnancy.

However, that approach only prevents women from seeking treatment, with poor results both for themselves and their children. (Although the state of Maine has – and needs – the authority to take a child from a dangerous living situation.)

Maine would be better off following Ohio, which established a $4.2 million, three-year pilot program to provide drug treatment, counseling, and relapse prevention to pregnant women with addiction.

As distasteful as it is to some, opiate-replacement treatments such as methadone and Suboxone are preferable to forcing a woman to quit heroin “cold turkey,” which could cause a miscarriage.

And they are certainly preferable to no treatment at all, according to, among others, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Health.


Unfortunately, Maine is heading in the opposite direction.

Treatment centers are closing and people with addiction are being turned away from services, even as state treatment funds, according to the LePage administration, goes unspent.

With so few avenues available for the thousands of Mainers seeking treatment, it’s no surprise we are seeing more drug-exposed babies, as well as more overdoses and cases of hepatitis C, among other outcomes of increasing drug use.

And if we don’t respond with more resources for people ready to face their addiction, it’ll only get worse.

filed under: