Children born dependent on opiates suffer withdrawal and other health problems, including vomiting and diarrhea, shortly after birth. They are known to have high-pitched, inconsolable screams, and their symptoms can last days or even weeks.
The new research adds another layer of context to their long-term health outlook. One recent study in the United States, where an opioid epidemic has swept across the country, found that rates of neonatal abstinence syndrome have increased nearly fivefold over the past decade
For the study, published Monday (PDF)
in the journal Pediatrics, the authors examined school test data for all children born in the state of New South Wales between 2000 and 2006, looking at reading and math test scores in third, fifth and seventh grades.
The study examined more than 2,200 children born with neonatal abstinence syndrome and compared their test results with those of more than 4,300 who do not have NAS, as well as the test results of 598,000 children in New South Wales.
The biggest takeaway, the authors concluded, was that children born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS, performed progressively worse on testing as they got older. By seventh grade, nearly 38% of the NAS children did not meet the minimum standards in at least one testing category.
"This difference was progressive," the authors said. "By the time the children reached grade 7, scores for children with NAS were lower than scores for other children in grade 5."
The authors said children who are born addicted to opiates and their families "must be identified early and provided with support to minimize the consequences of poor education outcomes."
The authors acknowledged that other factors, such as home environment or parents' education level, may have contributed to the lower test scores. However, they said the results suggest that "children with NAS must be supported beyond withdrawal to minimize the risk of school failure and its consequences."
Although there are no boundaries when it comes to addiction, rural US hospitals have been hit hardest by the opiate crisis because of the strain on already tight resources.
It's a familiar problem for Dr. Sean Loudin, the medical director of a neonatal therapeutic unit at Cabell Huntington Hospital in Huntington, West Virginia, and a separate facility called Lily's Place. He said he sees one out of every 10 children born dependent on heroin or some other opiate.
"When they are born, because they're no longer being exposed to an opiate, they're going to go through withdrawal. That is what we deal with. We deal with babies going through withdrawal."