01 Sep Heartbreaking Effects of Scotland’s Drug Problems – 852 Babies Born Addicted Since 2017
New research collected by the Scottish LibDems found that as many as 852 babies have been born addicted to substances in the past five years. Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) is a condition that affects babies who have been exposed to drugs while in the womb.
Drugs taken by the mother during pregnancy can result in the baby experiencing withdrawal after birth. NAS can be a result of illicit or legal substances being used in pregnancy, but regardless, the consequences are devastating. Symptoms of this condition include breathing difficulties, seizures, and low body weight.
This research follows the latest National Records of Scotland report, which found that Scotland is still considerably higher than all other regions of the UK for drug-related deaths, with 1,330 people dying due to drug overdoses in 2021. Drug addiction rates are high across the country, statistically linked to poverty and deprivation.
One leading addiction expert, Paul Spanjar of the Providence Projects, explains the dangers of substance abuse and addiction during pregnancy.
“There’s the risk of physical complications to the baby, but there’s also a high risk of mother-to-baby substance transmission. Drugs, including alcohol and opiates, are absorbed by the placenta, and many of these babies are born with a physical dependence on substances.
This presents another challenge to the baby, and data consistently highlights the correlation between substance abuse exposure in children and an increased likelihood of them developing substance abuse problems in the future.
The Scottish LibDems used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain data that showed that 856 babies have been born with NAS since 2017. In the year 2020 – 2021, 173 babies were born dependent on substances. In the first half of 2021-2022, 52 babies were born addicted.
The general picture of drug use across Scotland shows that there are hot spots where drug-related death rates are higher; however, drug misuse deaths are being recorded throughout the mainland and islands. The highest drug death rate in the country is in Dundee, with 45.2 deaths per 100,000 population since 2017. Closely following this is Glasgow with 44.4 and Inverclyde with 35.7.
The highest proportion of babies being born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome was in NHS Lothian, which serves Edinburgh and the surrounding areas; there were 434 recorded cases. This was followed by 143 in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and 118 in NHS Grampian, which serves Aberdeenshire and the surrounding areas.
What Are the Risks of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome
Misusing substances of any kind during pregnancy can result in this devastating condition. One of the most prominent causes is prescription opiate abuse. With opioid prescriptions increasing across the country, this poses a risk to mothers misusing the substance even under legitimate prescriptions.
Substances that can affect the health of the unborn baby include tobacco and alcohol, although the most significant risks come from substances such as opioids, methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine. Despite the National Health Service making concerted efforts to educate expectant mothers, many women continue to use these substances during pregnancy.
Every case of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome is different, but some common symptoms affected babies may share. Symptoms may occur within a few days of birth but can appear up to six months after birth.
Some of the typical early indicators of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome include:
- Jaundice (yellowed skin or eyes)
- Body tremors
- Overactive reflexes
- Frequently crying and signs of discomfort
- Poor appetite
- Slow weight gain
- Breathing difficulties
- Fever, sweating, or rashy skin
- Sleeping problems
- Diarrhea or vomiting
- Stuffy nose or sneezing
As the child develops, they may experience further complications, including developmental and psychological issues. With early identification and intervention, it is possible to treat NAS, and children may go on to lead happy healthy lives. However, the negative implications can be lasting without medical support and an early diagnosis.
Treatment for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome
If treatment is administered within the first month of life, it is likely to improve the child’s health and reduce withdrawal symptoms. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily mean there is a full recovery from the condition, but it can prevent severe, lasting damage from being made.
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome can be tested for in a number of ways, including:
- A score system that adds points for every symptom experienced, depending on the severity.
- A Meconium test should be done with the baby’s first bowel movement.
- A urine test.
Should NAS be found in a baby, there are some treatment methods to prevent long-term damage, including the following:
- Medication to ease or inhibit withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms should naturally ease off over time, and medication will be reduced accordingly. This technique is a way of tapering the child off the substance.
- Fluids may be administered intravenously to prevent dehydration due to diarrhea or vomiting.
- Drinking higher-calorie baby formula in place of milk to support feeding and healthier growth.
Support for Healthy Families
The Scottish government has been called to action following these recent findings, with some people suggesting not enough is being done. A spokeswoman for the government said the investment is increasing into local services and providing support to women and families, “which are central to the public health approach being taken”.
She said there is a “national mission to tackle the drugs death emergency,” with an extra £250m being invested in improving and increasing access to treatment and recovery services.
Prevention is considerably more effective than treatment, and this is certainly the case with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. Women should be supported to manage any substance dependence before getting pregnant and should be treated with compassionate care regardless of the circumstances.
Stigmatization leads to many individuals not reaching out for help, and silence is one of the most detrimental barriers to accessing care. NAS is an extension of the wider substance abuse problem in the UK, and a holistic plan must be put in place to tackle this issue.