Australia

Bryce’s mum was using opioids while pregnant. He received early help but his case is a rarity

The image we conjure of someone going through withdrawal is dramatic. Thrashing about in agony, feverish and panicked. But that’s not always what it looks like for babies who have been exposed to methamphetamines in the womb.
They’re placid. Sleepy.
Dr Ju Lee Oei, a neonatologist who heads up the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Sydney’s Royal Women’s Hospital, has heard such babies described by unknowing admirers as “the bestest ever babies who sit in the corner and don’t demand attention.”

While healthcare workers in certain hospitals are trained to spot the signs of mothers and babies with addiction issues, many problem drug users go undetected – and so too does their baby’s suffering.

Neonatologist Dr Ju Lee Oei from Sydney’s Royal Women’s Hospital has heard of affected babies described by unknowing admirers as well-behaved. Credit: The Feed

It’s estimated as many as six thousand children will be born every year after being prenatally exposed to substance use.

‘It will affect me till the day I die’

Dr Stacy Blythe is a registered nurse, an academic, a mother to four biological children and a mum to a sibling group of four children who came to her into her care via the foster system.

Since learning that her son, Bryce, was exposed to harmful substances during pregnancy, Dr Blythe has become an activist for greater public awareness and medical research in this space.

Bryce says that he can, “definitely feel the effects of trauma and what’s happened to me.” His symptoms primarily affect his ability to take in information, his short-term memory and his capacity for remembering simple instructions.
“When I was younger, I was told just very basic stuff like mum took a bad medicine,” Bryce, now 18, shares.
“To my knowledge, I believe I was exposed to some form or multiple forms of opioids.”
He also feels the stigma, saying “people’s perspective is usually very negative towards people like myself when I explain what the situation is.”
Bryce says he doesn’t feel ashamed, nor guilty. He does, however, hope for less judgement.

“I believe what I’ve gone through will affect me to the day I die. It’ll affect everything I do. Every career I have. Every person I encounter. It won’t go away. It never will.”

A young child wearing glasses smiles.

Bryce says he doesn’t feel ashamed but hopes for less judgement from others.

Few babies who come into the world pre-exposed to harmful substances are lucky to receive the level of support Bryce has enjoyed; including a mum who has developed a training program for carers of children in his situation.

Environmental conditions often associated with drug use during pregnancy – poverty and domestic violence – will also profoundly affect a child’s capacity to thrive.
And if a parent, teacher or carer doesn’t understand that the child in their care has a neurological disability, they might use disciplinary methods that could actually make the situation worse.

“A lot of these babies struggle through school and high school, some of them end up homeless, many of them end up incarcerated,” says Dr Blythe.

‘Without funding, we’ll be forever in the dark’

Dr Oei suspects that around the time of birth, up to 90 per cent of affected babies will go undetected.
The social stigma and legal ramifications associated with drug use means many pregnant women won’t disclose to their doctors that they are using harmful substances.

While 1.5 per cent of women in Australia admit to problematic drug use during their pregnancy, data from other studies suggest that the true number of pregnancies where illicit substances, alcohol, nicotine, or prescription medication use is a complicating factor could be as high as 5 per cent.

A woman and teenage boy talk to each other at a dinner table.

Dr Stacy Blythe (left) sits with her son Bryce. Dr Blythe has become an activist for greater public awareness and medical research on drug-affected babies.

“Even if the baby looks amazingly well, healthy, not withdrawing and doing everything right in the baby period, these are certainly children that deserve intense scrutiny when they grow up,” Dr Oei.

Exposure to different drugs has different effects on a baby’s development. While not all exposure will necessarily be problematic, in the case of meth, the problem is less about withdrawal issues around the time of birth and more about the increased likelihood of learning disabilities later in life.
Pre-exposure to harmful drugs can manifest as behavioural problems, impulse control, attention problems, reactive attachment, oppositional defiance disorders, or make it seem as if the child is on the autism spectrum.

The reality of this critically under-researched issue is that pre-exposure to meth is often not apparent until a child reaches school age when their teacher might be the first to detect a learning disability.

A baby in a hospital surrounded by staff.

It’s estimated as many as six thousand children will be born every year after being prenatally exposed to substance use. Credit: The Feed

By this time, “the boat has sailed and whatever intervention you can give a child will be less effective,” says Dr Oei.

If the child’s condition goes undiagnosed, it can severely impact their ability to learn.
As the supply of illicit drugs changes, so too does the impact these new drugs have on the babies who are exposed to them. By the time the consequences of a certain drug have been determined, there may be a new generation of illicit drugs on the market.

“Without funding for research, we will be forever in the dark about this problem,” says Dr Oei.

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