What Is Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome?

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
November 03, 2017

When a pregnant woman uses opioid drugs, illegal or prescribed, her baby can be born with neonatal abstinence syndrome. Here's what it is.

The term neonatal abstinence syndrome is scary, but it does not mean that a child is doomed.

What is neonatal abstinence syndrome?

If you use heroin, codeine, OxyContin, or other opioids while pregnant, the drug reaches the baby in your womb. Your child may become dependent on it — which is not the same as having an “addiction.” After birth, your baby may need treatment for neonatal abstinence syndrome as the drug leaves the child’s body. The number of newborns born with this condition in the hospital shot up between 1999 and 2013, from 1.5 babies for every 1,000 births to 6.


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Prescribed opioids can be safe for pregnant women, and hospitals will know what to do when your baby has neonatal abstinence syndrome. The syndrome “can be readily treated and has never been shown to lead to any long-term adverse effects,” a group of more than forty experts wrote in 2013.

Neonatal abstinence syndrome has not been tied to birth defects, for example.

If you have used any opiates within a week of delivery, you may have to wait up to week to bring your child home. The symptoms may arrive within one to three days after birth or show up within two weeks or a month, depending on many factors.

Tell your doctors about any drugs you use — if you also smoked cigarettes or used cocaine or benzodiazepines like Klonopin or Ativan while pregnant, treatment of your baby’s neonatal abstinence syndrome may be more difficult.


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April 02, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA