Learning difficulties and other special education needs are common in children born with opioid-related symptoms of their mother's drug use during pregnancy, according to the first major US study to examine possible long-term problems in these babies.
Approximately one in every 7 affected children required special services in the classroom for problems including developmental delays and speech or language difficulties.
In contrast, only one in 10 children not exposed to opioids before birth has similar problems, the study found.
The study highlights the "absolutely critical" importance of early detection and intervention, before these children reach school age, to give them a better chance of academic success, said Dr. Nathalie Maitre, Children's Hospital development specialist. Nationwide in Columbus, Ohio.
Babies born to mothers who used opiates during pregnancy, like this one in Tennessee, have 40 percent more learning risks or behavioral delays, a new study suggests.
"It really confirms what we are seeing that we monitor the neurodevelopment of these children," he said.
The study involved approximately 7,200 children ages 3 to 8 enrolled in the Tennessee Medicaid program. Nearly 2,000 of them were born with what doctors call "neonatal abstinence syndrome".
It is a collection of symptoms caused by abstinence from the use of opioid drugs by your pregnant mother, such as prescription painkillers, heroin or fentanyl.
Drugs can pass through the placenta to the developing nervous system.
The tremors, the crying difficult to calm, the diarrhea and the difficulty to feed and sleep are some of the signs that the babies are retiring.
In Tennessee, hit hard by the nation's opioid epidemic, the rate of affected babies increased from less than one per 1,000 hospital births in 1999 to 13 per 1,000 births in 2015.
Whether the results of the study would apply elsewhere is uncertain, but in Tennessee, most children born with withdrawal symptoms enroll in that state's Medicaid program.
Also in Tennessee, a diagnosis of syndrome qualifies children to receive early intervention services.
Dr. Maitre, who was not involved in the study, said she suspects that the research may underestimate the magnitude of the problem, since it only captures children who have not passed through the crack.
The only previous comparable study was in Australia, published last year, which shows that affected children had worse academic test scores in seventh grade than other children.
The new study analyzed how many children were referred for possible learning disabilities and received school services for related difficulties.
He did not examine academic performance.
The results were published on Thursday by Pediatrics magazine.
The researchers said that taking into account other factors that could affect children's development, including birth weight and mothers' education and tobacco use, did not change the results.
The co-author of the study, Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University, said it makes sense that the use of opioids in pregnancy may affect the later development of children.
Some studies have found brain differences in affected children, even in a region involved in certain types of learning.
But Dr. Mary-Margaret Fill, senior author and researcher at the Tennessee Department of Health, said these children "are definitely not convicted."
There are excellent programs and services that exist to help these children and their families. We just have to make sure they plug in. "