Number of Babies Exposed to Drugs in Utero Triples in Louisiana

The Department of Children and Family Services in Louisiana reports that, across the state, the

The Department of Children and Family Services in Louisiana reports that, across the state, the number of newborns who have been exposed to the effects of drugs and alcohol in the womb has tripled since 2008. The cause? An increased rate of use of prescription painkillers like oxycodone and hydrocodone as well as an increase in the use of heroin by women who are pregnant.

There were 569 “valid allegations” of newborns born with alcohol or drugs in their systems in 2008, a number that shot up to 1,512 by 2015.

The problem of babies born struggling with their mother’s prenatal substance use is not the only problem related to opiate abuse in Louisiana. The rate of deaths caused by opiate overdose has also skyrocketed in the past 10 years. Specifically, more than 6,000 Louisianans died of a drug overdose between 2004 and 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

These two problems together are devastating to Louisiana families. Babies born dealing with the effects of drug abuse often have problems.


Some blame these problems on higher rates of opiate drug prescriptions by doctors across the state. Others say it goes deeper than that, pointing to the fact that the while the pharmaceutical companies spend big on marketing their wares to prescribing physicians, they spent more than $1 million on contributions to the campaigns of Louisiana politicians between 2006 and 2015.

Still others believe that increased accessibility to these addictive substances is only a problem because there is not enough access to effective mental health treatment. The assumption is that people are attempting to “self-medicate” issues of depression, anxiety, and stress with prescription drugs because they cannot find relief through treatment.

As with most things that have to do with addiction, it is likely that all of these issues and more are playing a part in Louisiana’s addiction epidemic.

Addressing the Problem

No matter how or why opiate drug use started, the only clear path forward is through increasing access to treatment services. Addiction is a medical disorder that is characterized by a number of different behaviors. Drug and alcohol use is often one of those behaviors, but so too are codependency, compulsive engagement in gambling or shopping or eating, and other impulse control issues that have negative consequences. It is imperative that treatment services not only address the issue of drug use and cravings but also apply directed and comprehensive treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders and physical ailments that may be contributing to all the addictive behaviors.

This means making use of:

  • Brain scans, to identify indications of mental health disorders, traumatic brain injury, and other issues that can contribute to addiction disorder
  • Complete history and assessment, to determine what past treatments were effective and which were not
  • Screenings for indicated mental health and physical health conditions
  • Personalized treatment plan detailing therapeutic goals based on the individual’s information
  • Regular check-ins to ensure that progress is being made toward recovery goals

What are the Risks of Babies Exposed to Drugs?

The risks of babies exposed to drugs are many and varied. Some of the most common risks include:

  • Low birth weight
  • Premature birth
  • Respiratory problems
  • Birth defects
  • Developmental delays
  • Behavioral problems
  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

It's important to note that the risks depend on the type of drug used, the amount used, and the timing of drug use during pregnancy.

What are the Effects of Babies Exposed to Drugs?

The effects of babies exposed to drugs can be long-lasting and can affect the child's physical, emotional, and cognitive development. Some of the effects may include:

  • Neurological problems
  • Learning disabilities
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Social and emotional problems
  • Substance abuse problems later in life

How Drug Use During Pregnancy Affects the Baby's Brain Development

Drug use during pregnancy can have a significant impact on the developing brain of the fetus. The drugs can interfere with the normal development of the brain, which can lead to long-lasting effects on the child's cognitive abilities and behavior.

Studies have shown that exposure to drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine during pregnancy can cause structural changes in the fetal brain. These changes can affect how different areas of the brain communicate with each other, leading to problems with attention, memory, decision-making, and impulse control later in life.

In addition to structural changes, drug use during pregnancy can also alter the levels of neurotransmitters in the fetal brain. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that carry messages between nerve cells in the brain. When these levels are disrupted by drugs, it can lead to long-lasting changes in how the brain functions.

It's important for pregnant women who are struggling with drug addiction to seek help as soon as possible. Early intervention and treatment can help reduce the risks associated with drug use during pregnancy and improve outcomes for both mother and baby.

How Can Babies Exposed to Drugs be Treated?

Treating babies exposed to drugs can be challenging. Treatment will depend on the type and severity of the baby's symptoms. Some possible treatments include:

  • Medications to manage withdrawal symptoms
  • Nutritional support to promote healthy growth and development
  • Physical therapy to address any motor delays or problems
  • Behavioral therapy to address emotional and social problems

Differences in the Risks and Effects of Various Types of Drugs on Babies

Not all drugs are created equal when it comes to their effects on babies. Different types of drugs can have varying levels of risk and can cause different effects on the developing fetus.


For example, opioids such as heroin and prescription painkillers can cause withdrawal symptoms in newborns, including irritability, tremors, and seizures. These symptoms can be managed with medication-assisted treatment, but they can still have long-lasting effects on a baby's development.


Stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine can also have serious consequences for babies exposed to them during pregnancy. These drugs can cause premature birth, low birth weight, and developmental delays. They can also increase the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).


Marijuana use during pregnancy is becoming more common as more states legalize its use. However, research has shown that marijuana use during pregnancy can lead to low birth weight and developmental delays.


Alcohol is another drug that can have serious consequences for babies exposed to it during pregnancy. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) are a group of conditions that can occur in babies exposed to alcohol during pregnancy. These conditions include physical abnormalities, intellectual disabilities, and behavioral problems.

It's important for pregnant women to understand the risks associated with different types of drugs and to seek help if they are struggling with addiction. Healthcare providers should also be aware of these risks so they can provide appropriate care for mothers and babies affected by drug exposure during pregnancy.

Strategies for Preventing Drug Use During Pregnancy

Preventing drug use during pregnancy is crucial for the health and well-being of both mother and baby. If you or someone you know is struggling with drug addiction, there are resources available to help.

One strategy for preventing drug use during pregnancy is to seek support and treatment as early as possible. This can include counseling, therapy, and medication-assisted treatment (MAT) programs. These programs can help individuals overcome their addiction and develop healthy coping mechanisms.

Another strategy is to create a strong support network. This can include family members, friends, and healthcare professionals who understand the challenges of addiction and can offer encouragement and assistance when needed.

It's also important to educate yourself about the risks associated with drug use during pregnancy. This knowledge can help motivate you to seek treatment and make positive changes in your life.

If you're looking for resources or support, there are many organizations that specialize in helping pregnant women who are struggling with addiction. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a national helpline that provides referrals to local treatment centers, support groups, and other resources. Additionally, organizations like March of Dimes provide education and support for pregnant women who are trying to quit drugs.

By taking proactive steps to prevent drug use during pregnancy, you can give your baby the best possible start in life.

Ongoing Long-Term Support

In addition to the intensive and directed medical care needed to help someone overcome addiction in the first months of recovery, it is important that long-term connection with recovery resources and continued support continue long after the rehab program is completed. This means continuing to engage with the alumni group and peers in the program. It means reaching out to others in the community who are also in recovery and forging new and positive bonds. It means continuing to seek treatment for the management of chronic conditions like anxiety, depression, and/or chronic pain. And it means always keeping the door open for a return to treatment should relapse or the urge to relapse occur.

Few people in treatment for addiction spent only a few weeks or months in active addiction before seeking treatment. Thus, more than just a few months of treatment is necessary to forge changes that will last a lifetime. For many, follow-up support is just as critical as the initial treatment phase, and it is recommended that those looking for the right treatment program connect with a facility that offers long-term aftercare support.


Babies exposed to drugs are at risk for a variety of health and development problems. However, with early intervention and appropriate treatment, many of these problems can be managed. If you or someone you know is pregnant and struggling with drug addiction, seek help as soon as possible. There are resources available to support you and your baby.


Since joining the Townsend content team, Shlomo has become a thought leader in the addiction field. He is a Seinfeld junkie, a recovering Twitter fanatic, and a sports expert. He enjoys milk shakes and beautiful views from rooftops.