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Surprising Science

Umbilical Cord Analysis Helps Doctors Treat Babies Exposed to Drugs in the Womb

Infants whose mothers used drugs during pregnancy are often born already addicted to those substances. After birth, an analysis of the detached umbilical cord can determine what severe physiological withdrawal symptoms can be expected.

When an expectant mother uses harmful drugs during pregnancy there’s a high chance her child will be born a drug addict and thus suffer severe physiological withdrawal symptoms.

There are few things that are more of a bummer than a drug-addicted infant. But like so many of the world’s bountiful bummers, it happens far too often. 

Ali Venosa has a really informative piece up on Medical Daily about this:

Newborns born with a drug addiction suffer from neonatal abstinence syndrome, and may have symptoms like diarrhea, seizures, sensitivity to light, and hyperactive reflexes. Some babies, depending on the drug their mother was addicted to, will carry the consequences for life, experiencing brain damage and learning disabilities. The most common drug ARUP identifies is marijuana, followed by opioids, such as heroin and prescription painkillers. Sometimes, there is a mix of illicit and prescription drugs found in an infant’s system…

The American Medical Association estimates that in the U.S., one infant suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome was born every hour in 2009.”

Fortunately, doctors have tools that can help them treat infants who may be experiencing withdrawal. Venosa details a procedure that involves immediately sending the snipped umbilical cord to a lab for drug analysis. Physicians who suspect that a newborn may be the result of a drug-abuse pregnancy can then tailor their treatment strategies to suit the child’s needs. 

“Quickly identifying which infants have been exposed to drugs (and which drugs they’ve been exposed to) is vital because neonatal specialists must know what they’re dealing with before treating symptoms for withdrawal. If there is a medical reason or suspicion to believe the mother is at high risk for drug use, the delivery team may choose to send the umbilical cord for testing, which can take up to 72 hours. It varies by hospital, but generally, testing the baby for drugs doesn’t require a mother’s consent.”

That last part about the mother’s consent can be a tricky point, as the discovery of illicit drugs in the umbilical cord can be deemed abuse and get the baby turned over to social services. On one hand, the test could be construed an invasion of privacy. On the other, it’s important that mothers who might have been up to no good while pregnant can’t resist the test, thus putting their child at major risk. 

Last month, Managed Care ran a feature detailing a study that revealed a shocking spike in neonatal abstinence syndrome over the last decade:

“In 2004, neonatal abstinence syndrome occurred in seven out of every 1,000 babies admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). By 2013, that number had more than tripled, to 27 out of 1,000.”

This is not only a major risk for the children involved, but also a major suck on hospitals that have had to devote more time and resources to treating them. These figures aren’t yet high enough for panic, but the sudden rise is very concerning. The goal needs to be a trend reversal, likely through educational means. Pregnant women who are addicted to substances that can harm their child need access to have a safe, confidential service for them to get help.

Read more at Medical Daily.

Photo credit: fatido / Getty

Below, futurist and entrepreneur Michael Vassar discusses what he believes the future of medical research should look like. Surprise, surprise: It’s a whole lot different than the broken system we have now:


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