May 27, 2018
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There’s hope for babies affected by opioids. It hinges on help for their moms.

Timothy D. Easley | AP
Timothy D. Easley | AP
A week-old baby lies in one of the ICU bays at one of the Norton Children's Hospital neonatal intensive care units Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, in Louisville, Kentucky. This particular NICU, is dedicated to newborns of opioid addicted mothers, that are suffering with newborn abstinence syndrome, is kept dark and quiet due to increased production of neurotransmitters in newborns of addicted mothers, which can disrupt the nervous system and overstimulate bodily functions.

More than 900 Maine babies were born last year after being exposed to addictive substances in utero. While the 2017 figure marked a slight decrease from 2016, the number of drug-affected babies in Maine has generally been on the rise as the opioid addiction epidemic has ravaged Maine, taking hundreds of lives each year.

What does the future hold for the young Maine children born after being exposed to drugs? That’s one of the open-ended questions about the addiction epidemic’s long-term effects on Maine.

A handful of recent studies, highlighted in a recent report from NPR, suggest the outlook might not be all dire, especially if their mothers are getting help.

In one study released earlier this year, more than 80 2 year olds who had been born drug affected were given standard tests evaluating their cognitive, language and motor skills. “Most of these children do well, and they do within the normal range,” the lead researcher, Dr. Stephanie Merhar of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, told NPR.

Another study, released last month, found that children whose mothers were undergoing treatment for opioid addictions while pregnant have a good shot at developing normally. The study evaluated the physical and mental development of nearly 100 children born to mothers who had been undergoing treatment for an opioid addiction while pregnant. It found that children tended to score within the normal ranges on tests for cognitive, language and mental processing abilities within their first three years of life.

Exposure to anti-addiction treatment such as methadone and buprenorphine (known commercially as Suboxone) in utero is “not deleterious to normal physical and mental development,” the researchers wrote.

That doesn’t mean there’s no cause for concern about the long-term wellbeing of drug-affected babies. The available research tends to offer the perspective of only a few years, not the length of an entire childhood. There’s still a risk that developmental delays or other negative effects could emerge as children exposed to opiates in utero continue to grow.

What the research suggests is that being born drug affected might not be an insurmountable obstacle to living a normal childhood. But, certainly, one factor that diminishes a child’s chances of living a normal childhood is a parent’s addiction.

Addicted parents need the opportunity to overcome their addictions, both for their own benefit and for their children’s. But parents with addictions in Maine don’t have access to the full stable of services they need to overcome their addictions and provide their children with stable childhoods.

One obstacle is the refusal of Gov. Paul LePage and other Maine Republicans to implement the expansion of Medicaid that voters approved last November. The expanded Medicaid program would cover about 15,000 additional low-income parents. Presumably, some have addictions and are ready to pursue treatment — if only they had a way to pay for it.

Another component of a stable childhood is financial stability, and there’s limited opportunity in Maine today for low-income families to obtain cash assistance that could contribute to that stability. A policy passed in LePage’s first year in office that limited families to five years of benefits through the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has led to thousands of families with children losing the small amounts of financial assistance the program offers.

Presumably, some of those families are led by parents with addictions and parents recovering from addictions whose lives are less stable without financial help that allows them to pay rent, utility bills or other expenses involved with maintaining a household.

There’s hope for drug-affected babies to live normal lives. But that hope is conditional. So far, Maine isn’t meeting those conditions.

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