Babies born exposed to drugs, alcohol on the rise


Director of Division of Public Health Department of Health and Social Services Karyl Rattay speaks during a press conference on Substance Exposed Infants and Families at the Duncan Center in Dover on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Every 25 minutes, a baby is born in the United States suffering from opioid withdrawal — and many other infants are exposed to alcohol or other drugs while in the womb.

As more people die from opioid use, Delaware is intensifying efforts to identify and care for babies impacted by drugs and alcohol as fetuses. The state has increased screening and educational efforts and is seeking to develop a comprehensive system of treatment.

“Pregnant women often do not realize the extent to which even minimal alcohol and drug use can harm their baby,” Delaware Division of Public Health Director Karyl Rattay said.

Dr. Rattay was one of several individuals who spoke Thursday at a news conference aimed at highlighting the increase in babies born to mothers who used drugs or alcohol during their pregnancies.

In 2016, 431 substance-exposed infants were reported to the state of Delaware, an increase of about 100 from the prior year.

That increase is partly due to greater awareness of the issue, but make no mistake: Officials say an alarming number of children are being born exposed to substances.

The state requires doctors to inform pregnant women about how their use of alcohol or drugs can impact their unborn babies. These substances can have long-term effects on development, and even babies that escape serious brain damage can have learning disabilities or attention-span issues.

Damage to other areas of the body is also possible. Cocaine, for instance, can cause serious heart issues in a baby if used by the mother while pregnant.

“There is no safe amount of alcohol or illegal drugs. None whatsoever,” said DPH spokeswoman Emily Knearl, the adoptive mother of a boy who was exposed to alcohol and possibly opioids. “And the challenge is for one infant it could cause permanent damage and for another infant it couldn’t.”

Alcohol is the top cause of preventable birth defects, according to public health officials. Marijuana, which is legal in some states and can be prescribed for certain medical conditions in Delaware, remains unsafe for fetuses despite its legal status.

As obvious as these dangers may seem to some, not everyone is aware of the risks. The Division of Public Health hopes to change that.

According to DPH, up to 90 percent of pregnant women who use drugs and alcohol became pregnant by accident. Many reside in low-income areas and lack easy access to quality care. They may also be uninformed about the risks and what the state does to help.

“Pregnant women struggling with addiction may be hesitant to seek treatment because they’re worried their child will be pulled away. That’s actually not true,” Ms. Knearl said.

She adopted her son, who is now 6, about three years ago, after serving as a foster parent to him for six months. He “slipped through the cracks” as an infant, Ms. Knearl said, something she believes would not have happened if he had been born this year, when education on substance-addicted infants has increased screenings and intervention. Her son has brain damage and behavioral issues as a result of his birth mother’s alcohol use. He receives special education, therapy and other services, Ms. Knearl said, but he is “far, far away from being, quote-unquote, a normal, on-track child.”

While caring for substance-exposed infants is often a life-or-death issue, it is also just a symptom of a larger problem. The opioid epidemic that claimed the lives of hundreds of Delawareans last year has caused many children to be born with serious birth defects and health risks.

Addressing opioid addiction and providing greater education about the dangers of using drugs while pregnant can reduce the number of babies born with birth defects and related problems.

Delaware has received financial assistance from the federal government to educate families and treat substance-exposed infants.

Through a partnership with many other state and federal health agencies, the state last year began to take steps toward the rise in babies born with substance addictions. Those steps include:

• Surveying birth hospitals and obstetricians and gynecologists on their experiences and needs

• Increasing screening of reproductive-age women who may be at risk for addiction and increasing links to treatment and home visiting services

• Educating physicians on the signs and symptoms of addiction in pregnant patients and how to refer patients to treatment

• Reducing stigma around maternal substance use and discussing addiction as a chronic disease and the importance of connecting families to support, not punitive measures

• Developing a system where infants born exposed to substances and their families receive needed medical treatments and supports as part of the federally-required “Plan of Safe Care” process

• Linking to the Delaware Contraception Access Now program to help women get access to effective contraception immediately postpartum

Mothers worried about drugs and alcohol impacting their baby can visit

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