We have an acquaintance that is a foster parent to a child whose mother used drugs during her pregnancy. He has multiple siblings, all in foster care. The child is now nearly two and under continual medical and therapeutic care for learning disabilities, slow speech development, and gastrointestinal problems, among many others. These long-term side effects were the consequences of his mother’s drug use during fetal development.
According to the March of Dimes, nearly 4% of pregnant women use drugs. Mothers between the ages of 15 – 17 have the highest incidence of drug use during pregnancy (National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIDA).
So, how does a health professional know if a newborn has been exposed to drugs in utero? They will test the first, possibly second, stool of the newborn, called meconium. Fetuses begin forming waste material in their digestive system between 12 to 16 weeks’ gestation. They pass the in utero waste either during the delivery process or soon after. Doctors use meconium as an excellent specimen for drug testing if they suspect the mother may have used illicit substances. Signs of use that physicians look for include:
- Premature birth
- Low birth weight
- Mother’s past history of use or abuse
- Small head circumference
- Newborn signs of withdrawal
Meconium is an excellent specimen because it retains drug metabolites for up to 5 months, whereas newborn urine drug testing reflects only the last few days prior to excretion. Unfortunately, drug use during pregnancy can affect the newborn child both short-term and long-term. The child may exhibit signs of:
- Drug withdrawal symptoms
- Behavioral, development and learning disorders
- Birth defects
What is most critical to caring physicians is getting the test results before the mother leaves the hospital. Based on the test results, social services intervention may be necessary, and the child may be immediately placed in foster care. Today, hospitals are releasing new mothers within 24 to 48 hours of delivery. If test results are not received within this period of time, there is a high likelihood mom and baby will “disappear”, making intervention much more difficult.