Drug Babies Through the Years

No one in their right mind would advocate that pregnant women endanger their developing babies. But surely, illicit drug use is not as significant a problem as many other factors which can lead to serious consequences for a developing fetus. Like every other aspect of the drugwar, however, this one is blown entirely out of proportion to reality. We must also always bear in mind that for the most part, most drug users are not pregnant. Indeed, there are actually very few drug using pregnant women -- and most of those drink alcohol.

How does Exaggerating the Potential Consequences Help?

Though U.S. narcotics addiction is rising, physicians are still often unprepared for one poignant aspect: the newborn babies of addicted women. If the mother's dosage has been recent, her baby suffers drastic toxic effects, and often dies. The infant's symptoms resemble those of agonized adult withdrawal; convulsions, no appetite, bluish pallor, heavy sweating, endless, high-pitched crying. p.70

Source: Time, Born Addicts, May 19, 1958, p.70

But this was no ordinary addict caught in a cold sweat trying to kick the habit. He was an infant two days old. "We see fifteen or twenty babies like this every year," said Dr. Saul Krugman, Bellevue's director of pediatrics. "and the number seems to be going up." Five 'withdrawal babies' have turned up in the hospital's nurseries since March 2. p.84

"When the baby is born, his supply is cut off and he goes into typical withdrawal." Before pediatricians learned to recognize this phenomenon, about 90 per cent of these children died in convulsions. Now doctors administer small doses of the tranquilizer chlorpromazine and the death rate has dropped to less than 10 per cent. p.84

One significant question remains unanswered: Does addiction in the womb make a child more vulnerable to the habit when he grows up? p.84

Source: Newsweek, Sins of the Mothers, May 7, 1962, p.84

The infant in Manhattan's Harlem Hospital was smaller than most newborn babies, and his cry was unusually shrill and high-pitched. Within several days after his birth, his tormented wails became incessant. His sweating body shook and twitched. Occasionally he vomited. If his condition had gone undiagnosed and untreated, the baby might have suffered a convulsion, which could have been fatal, or have died a slower death by dehydration. But the signs have become all too familiar to inner-city doctors. The child's mother was a narcotics addict, and he was suffering withdrawal from the "habit" forced upon him in the womb. p.64

In New York City alone last year, there were more than 800 infants born of addicts. Many hundreds of others were born elsewhere, though there is no firm national count because some hospitals do not report those cases. Without proper care, doctors estimate, more than 50% of such cases can end in death. Treatment is effective and relatively simple. Some doctors give paregoric, an opium derivative that satisfies the child's need for a narcotic and controls withdrawal. Others administer depressants to calm the nervous system. While these drugs usually overcome the immediate crisis, experts are concerned that long-range effects on such children may be serious. p.64

Medical symptoms aside, the child born of an addicted mother may have problems far beyond the physical. "Usually an addicted mother is narcissistic, dependent, hostile and often a lesbian," explains Dr. Judianne Densen-Gerber, founder and executive director of the Odyssey House drug rehabilitation agency. "Usually she has no concept of how to be a mother. I've known pregnant addicts who live by prostitution to turn a trick even after the onset of labor pains." p.65

Source: Time, The Youngest Addicts, Jan 22, 1973, pp.64-65

At eight months, "Aaron" is about the size of an infant half his age. Listless and uncoordinated, he has yet to learn to sit up on his own. His huge brown eyes, rheumy and red-rimmed, roll in his pale face, incapable of focusing on anything for more than a split second. ... He is the child of an addict who not only injected heroin during her pregnancy but also used cocaine, a drug that may have even more serious consequences for the developing fetus. p.50

At Hale House, a rehabilitation home for drug-addicted babies, "cocaine kids" began to appear about five or six years ago, and since have become increasingly commonplace. p.50

What lies ahead for cocaine babies as they reach school age remains to be seen, but many researchers predict trouble. "I think the long- term effects are going to be devastating," says Dr. Sherrel Howard of UCLA. "I can very easily see mentally retarded children, children who have severe difficulties in learning, severe difficulties in any motor movements at all, simple things like eating, dressing." p.50

Doctors in city hospitals around the country also worry about the growing number of pregnant women who use a variety of drugs and bear infants with multiple addictions. p.50

The plummeting street price of cocaine and its availability in more potent forms like "crack," a purified version that can be smoked, raise the specter of a whole generation of drug-damaged children. p.50

Source: Time, Cocaine Babies, Jan 20, 1986, p.50

Guillermo and Paul are two heirs of America's deadly romance with cocaine. There are many more, and over the last couple of years their numbers have risen sharply. In 1984, for example, Dr. Xylina Bean of Martin Luther King Jr. General Hospital in Los Angeles saw just 10 newborns with traces of cocaine in their urine; last year that number rose to almost 100. By May of this year King had logged 180 babies born with cocaine in their systems. p.56

Over all, although doctors are certain that the number of cocaine- affected babies is rising, it's difficult to pin down exactly how many there are. For one thing, mothers who abuse cocaine frequently use it in tandem with other drugs --heroin, PCP or alcohol -- and the effects of those drugs are difficult to separate from the effects of cocaine. p.56

Because cocaine addiction involves less a physical withdrawal problem than a psychological one, coke babies can't be weaned with a substitute drug the way heroin-addicted babies are. ... Withdrawal can take up to a month. Some physicians sedate the infants with Valium, Thorazine or phenobarbital. "I don't know which is worse," Jackson Memorial's Dr. Richard Beach says resignedly. "the addiction or the phenobarbital." p.56

"The real danger of cocaine use is the risk of having a premature birth rather than having an 'addicted baby'," says Dr. Ivan Frantz, director of the neonatal intensive-care unit at New England Medical Center in Boston, running down a ghastly catalog of things that can go wrong. "The lungs are the last things to develop, so premature babies have a huge risk of lung disease. And the brain is not fully developed at this stage, so there is often a high risk of bleeding into the brain. p.57

And there may be additional serious effects over the long term; but since the phenomenon is new and doctors have yet to track coke babies over a long period, doctors can only guess at the scope of those problems. p.57

And social workers suggest that the long-term problems of coke babies may only begin in the hospital. If they are put up for adoption, they may have trouble finding homes. If they are sent back to their mothers, they are in grave danger of being neglected or abused. p.57

In fact, in Michigan, California and Massachusetts, babies born to coke addicts are technically victims of child abuse already. Not that the law makes much difference to the mothers. "I was sniffing cocaine, shooting it and freebasing it," says Electra, a 31-year- old Massachusetts woman who had her baby seven years ago. The little girl, Gemma, is now jittery and tense. p.57

Source: Newsweek, Cocaine Babies: Hooked at Birth, Jul 28, 1986, pp.56-57

When reports surfaced in the early 1980s that cocaine use by pregnant women could cause serious physical and mental impairment to their newborns, it was another warning that the snowy white drug was not as harmless as some believed. Doctors found that cocaine, like heroin and alcohol, could be passed from the user-mother to the fetus with disastrous results. Since then the epidemic of cocaine-afflicted babies has only become worse. The main reason: growing numbers of women are using crack, the cheap and readily available purified form of cocaine that plagues America's inner cities and has spread into middle-class suburbs. p.85

Dr. Ira Chasnoff of Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital reported that a study he directed of 36 U.S. hospitals found that at least 11% of 155,000 pregnant women surveyed had exposed their unborn babies to illegal drugs, with cocaine by far the most common. "There are women who wouldn't smoke and wouldn't drink," he says, "but they can't stay away from cocaine." p.85

As doctors see more and more crack-damaged infants -- many of them premature -- a clearer picture of the effects of the drug on the fetus is emerging. It is not a pretty one. Because a mother's crack binge triggers spasms in the baby's blood vessels, the vital flow of oxygen and nutrients can be severely restricted for long periods. ... If the cocaine dose is large enough, the blood supply can be cut so sharply that the placenta may tear loose from the uterus, putting the mother in danger and killing the fetus. The horrid litany is not just the result of binges. Even one "hit" of crack can irreparably damage a fetus or breast-fed baby. p.85

Crack mothers who show up at hospitals have often smoked up to the last stages of labor. Many are so high they do not notice when labor begins. Says Fulroth: "The crack cocaine mothers are the sickest you're going to see. They come in right when they're ready to deliver, and you just hold your breath waiting to see what you're going to get." The message is clear: for expectant mothers - - and their babies -- crack is a nightmare. p.85

Source: Time, Crack Comes to the Nursery, Sep 19, 1988 p.85

Thousands of babies will be born addicted this year because their mothers used drugs during their pregnancies. These infants often face a childhood full of medical problems. now some prosecutors say that the best way to help them is to threaten their mothers with jail terms. p.55

Last August a 23-year-old Florida mother, Jennifer Johnson, was found guilty of delivering a controlled substance to a minor, in this case giving her baby cocaine through her umbilical cord. Though she faced up to 30 years in prison, Johnson was sentenced to a year of house arrest in a drug rehabilitation center and 14 years of probation. p.55

Source: Newsweek, Cocaine Babies: The Littlest Victims, Oct 2, 1989, p.55

Last month Honolulu Police Chief Douglas Gibb told Congress that the number of drug-exposed newborns reported to welfare officials has jumped from two a week to six a week in the past year. Ice largely accounts for the dramatic increase, say health experts, and the fallout is straining Hawaii's social services. p.40

The little that is known about ice's effects on newborns is alarming. "If you thought cocaine dependency was bad, that's in the minor leagues compared to this drug," says Earlene Piko. As with cocaine babies, ice babies tend to be asocial and incapable of bonding. Some have tremors and cry for 24 hours without stopping. p.40

Source: Newsweek, The Fire of 'Ice', Nov 27, 1989, pp.37-40

That makes them part of a tragic generation of American youngsters -- a generation unfairly branded by some as "children of the damned" or a 'biologic underclass." More often, they are simply called crack kids. A few have severe physical deformities from which they will never recover. In others the damage can be more subtle, showing up as behavioral aberrations that may sabotage their schooling and social development. Many of these children look and act like other kids, but their early exposure to cocaine makes them less able to overcome negative influences like a disruptive family life. p.56

The first large group of these children was born in the mid-1980s, when hundreds of thousands of women began to get hooked on the cheap, smokable form of cocaine known as crack. The youngsters have run up huge bills for medical treatment and other care. Now the oldest are reaching school age, and they are sure to put enormous strain on an educational system that is already overburdened and underachieving. p.56

The dimensions of the tragedy are staggering. According to the National Association for Perinatal Addiction Research and Education (NAPARE), about 1 out of every 10 newborns in the U.S. -- 375,000 a year -- is exposed in the womb to one or more illicit drugs. The most frequent ingredient in the mix is cocaine. In major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Detroit and Washington many hospitals report that the percentage of newborns showing the effects of drugs is 20% or even higher. p.57

While poor, black ghetto children have attracted the most attention, they are far from being the only members of the crack generation. Cocaine abuse is common among members of the white upper and middle classes, but it is hidden better. Their babies are usually born at private hospitals that rarely ask mothers about drug use or screen them and their children for illegal chemicals. A 1989 Florida study found similar rates of drug use among pregnant white and black women of equal socioeconomic status, but only 1% of white abusers were reported to authorities, compared with nearly 11% of blacks. p.58

The crack kids are not the first children to be devastated but drugs while their mothers were pregnant. For many years, the unborn have been exposed to opiates, barbiturates, inhaled cocaine and a panoply of other drugs. And fetal alcohol syndrome, brought on by drinking during pregnancy, is believed to be a leading cause of mental retardation in the young. p.58

An increasing number of medical experts, however, vehemently challenge the notion that most crack kids are doomed. In fact, they detest the term crack kids, charging that it unfairly brands the children and puts them into a single dismal category. From this point of view, crack has become a convenient explanation for problems that are mainly caused by a bad environment. p.59

A study by Dr. Ira Chasnoff and his staff at Chicago-based NAPARE followed 300 cocaine-exposed babies who, along with their mothers, received intensive postnatal intervention. Of 90 children tested at age 3, 90% showed normal intelligence, 70% had no behavioral problems, and 60% did not need speech therapy. p.60

Source: Time, Innocent Victims, May 13, 1991, pp.56-60

For schools and for society, warned the press and the legions of anti-drug crusaders, cocaine babies would be a lost generation. Well, scientists have found this generation. The snow babies, it seems, are neither the emotional and cognitive cripples that many predicted -- nor the perfectly normal kids that biological revisionists have lately been claiming. p.62

Although studies on large numbers of school-age children are only beginning, research on toddlers suggests that 'most cocaine-exposed children do very well," says Dr. Barry Kosofsky of Harvard Medical School, co-chair of the conference. "Cocaine is not a sledgehammer to the fetal brain." p.62

It is a fact of life, and thus of science, that the women and children who wind up in these studies are not the wealthy Wall Street traders sniffing a line at eh end of a hard day. Instead they are poor, and often single, and the home they bring their baby to can be chaotic. These children have so many strikes against them that adding cocaine to the mix may not hurt them much more. Or as Prof. Barry Lester of Brown University puts it, "If you grow up in such a lousy environment, things are so bad already that cocaine exposure doesn't make much difference." p.62

It's too soon to draw final conclusions. Clearly the legions of crack babies have not turned out as badly as was feared, but the damage assessment is continuing. Most likely, the effects of cocaine are real but small. How starkly those effects show up depends, argues Kosofsky, on myriad factors, including the environment in which the child is raised. p.63

There will be plenty of time for further study. Even though the crisis has left the front pages, every year at least 40,000 babies are born to women who took cocaine while pregnant, according to a 1995 estimate but the National Institute on Drug Abuse. For years these children have been demonized and written off. But as the results of studies of young children show, few are beyond the help that a loving and stress-free home can provide. p.63

Source: Newsweek, Hope for 'Snow Babies', Sep 29, 1997, pp.62-63

More than 30 states have filed charges against women for taking illegal drugs during pregnancy. In 1997, for instance, South Carolina's Supreme Court ruled that women who use drugs during pregnancy can be prosecuted for child abuse.

Children born to cocaine addicted mothers are no more likely than other kids from similar backgrounds to have significant behavioral problems during their first three years.

"In the early 1990s, major magazines ran cover stories on crack kids, but these reports were not based on scientific evidence. Despite popular belief that there are lasting effects of prenatal cocaine exposure, that just hasn't been the case," [Cornell psychologist Barbara] Strupp says.

Source: Discover, The Crack Kid Myth, Sep 2000, p.15

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