Babies born addicted to opioids have smaller heads: study

Babies born addicted to opioids, including legal drugs used to treat addiction, have smaller heads than babies not exposed to the drugs, according to a new study.

The findings, published in Pediatrics this week, found that “babies chronically exposed to opiates [during pregnancy] had a head size about a centimeter smaller” than babies born to non-drug users, the study’s lead researcher, Dr. Craig Towers, told Health Day.

Small heads are associated with smaller brains, which could result in learning and development problems, neonatologist Jonathan Davis told Science News.

The research highlights potential problems with the recommended way doctors treat mothers with opioid addiction during pregnancy.

“What we’re recommending these moms do, which is get on methadone and buprenorphine, may result in a smaller head size of the baby,” Towers said. “This is going to have to make us re-look at what we’re doing.”

When pregnant moms use opioids or drugs like methadone or buprenorphine to treat addiction, the drugs travel through the bloodstream to babies. These babies can become addicted to the opioids in the womb and suffer from withdrawal symptoms after birth, a condition known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). In addition to having heads 1 centimeter smaller, the study found babies with NAS were 30 percent more likely to have exceptionally smaller heads, as opposed to just 12 percent of babies who did not have the condition.

The study found that of the 372 babies with NAS, 87 percent of them had a mother who took methadone or buprenorphine during pregnancy to treat their addiction.

These medicines are administered to prevent a pregnant mother from relapsing or experiencing withdrawal, which two studies from the 1970s suggest could harm the fetus. Recent studies found that gradual withdrawal from opioids or alcohol did not harm the fetus, Towers explained. He added that getting off street drugs should always be the first course of action but that the mother should be able to choose whether to stay on drugs to curb her addiction or withdrawal from them slowly.

“You have to get off the street stuff,” Towers says. “It’s not pure, and it’s killing people.”

The opioid crisis is on the rise in the United States and so is the number of babies born with NAS. From 1999 to 2013, the number of NAS cases in 28 states rose 300 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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