The Unique Needs of Drug-Dependent Mothers and their Newborns


This incident isn’t going to make national news, but it highlights the terrible intersection of drug abuse and motherhood.

In Ventnor City, NJ, a 31-year-old woman allegedly injured her 8-month-old daughter when she rolled over onto her while laying in bed. At the time, the mother was under the influence of drugs, specifically heroin, oxycodone and Lyrica, a painkiller commonly used to treat nerve pain. When police responded to the scene, they uncovered 34 bags of heroin and 10 oxycodone pills. The baby girl is not expected to live, according to social media posts by the baby’s father.

A quick Google search yields dozens of stories similar to this one, where the mother inadvertently kills her infant while high. According to a Reuters investigation, at least 110 babies have died since 2010 in preventable deaths while the parent was high on drugs. Many of these babies suffocated after their mothers rolled onto them. Other drug-related infant deaths occurred when the infants ingested the drugs, or were the victims of drug-induced accidents.

Even more disturbing is Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, a condition that affects over 27,000 newborn sin the US each year. This figure represents a five-fold increase from 2000-2009. When the mother takes drugs while pregnant, the drugs pass through the placenta to the fetus. The baby is then born addicted to the drug, and goes through the withdrawal process once they are no longer getting the drugs they were regularly exposed to in utero. This occurs when a mother frequently uses heroin, methamphetamine, oxycodone or other opiates and narcotics during pregnancy. Babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome usually experience violent seizures, uncontrollable trembling, fever, diarrhea, vomiting and sleep problems. Infants who suffer from NAS also frequently have low birth weight and respiratory problems. If you’ve ever seen a grown adult go through withdrawal, imagine the same thing happening to a newborn.

Heroin use in general has skyrocketed in the US. Heroin deaths have quadrupled in the last ten years, and have nearly tripled in the last three years alone.  According to one FDA report, the rate of heroin use is now 2.6 per 1,000 people in the US. This same study found that female heroin use has doubled in the last decade. New Jersey, the home state of the family mentioned above, has seen an explosion of heroin use in the last five years, with heroin-related deaths tripling since 2010.

The issue of babies entering the world borne of drug-addicted mothers is undoubtedly a feminist issue. Substance abuse in general poses a unique issue for women. For example, PTSD followed by sexual trauma is more often found in treatment-seeking women than men. Sex workers, the overwhelming majority of whom are women, are at an increased risk for substance abuse.

The very context of many women’s lives may affect patterns of drug use. Stress, negative affect and unhealthy relationships are all predictors of substance abuse. Still, other factors, such as post-partum depression, mood disorders and disordered eating are also more prevalent among substance-abusing women than their male counterparts.

An estimated 4 million women need treatment for substance abuse issues. One in five pregnant women, about 740,000 annually, use drugs throughout their term. What happens when these women give birth to unhealthy, drug-addicted babies? Beyond the obvious physical and emotional toll this takes on both mother and child, it comes with serious financial implications. The average cost in Tennessee, for example, to deliver a baby suffering from NAS is $62,000, compared with the $4,700 figure it takes to deliver the average healthy baby.

The babies who are lucky enough to survive NAS and other birth complications grow up to become the children of substance abuse. An estimated 3.4 children live with a mother who has substance abuse issues. The majority of these kids grow up to experience a host of problems, including low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and substance abuse issues themselves.

When my local radio station covered the story about the NJ women who caused her baby to asphyxiate, the (white, middle-aged, male) show hosts had a hard time fathoming why the woman didn’t reach out for support or call a babysitter if she knew she was going to be high. This highlights the lack of understanding about what happens to people in the throes of addiction. People suffering from opiate addiction typically fixate on three things: getting high, staying high, and preventing withdrawal symptoms when you can’t get high. Unfortunately, drug abuse eclipses even the best woman’s maternal instincts.

Given that so many women (and by extension, their children) suffer from drug abuse, there needs to be more awareness about the unique needs of female drug abuses, particularly those who are pregnant or new mothers.

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