CASA of Arizona

Substance Exposure - pg. 8

The Effects of Exposure on Newborns



Low Birth Weight

Birth weight is an important factor associated with children?s overall health and development. Children who weigh under five-and-one-half pounds at birth are more likely to have serious medical problems and to exhibit developmental delays. Drug-exposed infants often do not exhibit normal development.

Premature Birth

The risk of premature birth (birth at less than thirty-seven weeks) is higher in drug-exposed infants. Other complications can include an increase in acute medical problems following birth, and extended periods of hospitalization. Birth weight under three pounds has been associated with poor physical growth and poor general health status at school age.

Failure to Thrive (FTT)

Infants who were exposed to alcohol and/or drugs may exhibit this disorder, which is characterized by a loss of weight, or slowing of weight gain, and a failure to reach developmental milestones.

Neurobehavioral Symptoms

Within seventy-two hours after birth, many infants who were exposed prenatally to drugs experience withdrawal symptoms, including tremors and irritability. Their skin may be red and dry; they may have a fever, sweating, diarrhea, excessive vomiting, and even seizures. Such infants may require medication for calming. Other infants exposed to stimulants show a pattern of lethargy during the first few days after birth, are easily over stimulated, and may go from sleep to loud crying within seconds.

Infectious Diseases

Infants with prenatal drug exposure may be exposed prenatally or postnatally to infectious and/or sexually transmitted diseases contracted by their mothers. The most common infectious diseases seen in infants are Chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea, hepatitis B, HIV, and AIDS.

Neglect of Basic Necessities

Child neglect is characterized by failure to provide for the child's basic needs. Neglect can be physical (for example, inadequate clothing for cold weather), medical (for example, refusal to seek health care when a child clearly needs medical attention), educational (for example, failure to enroll a child of mandatory school age), or emotional (for example, chronic or extreme spouse abuse in the child's presence). Severe neglect often results in death, particularly in the case of very young children. While physical abuse tends to be episodic, neglect tends to be chronic. Neglectful families often appear to have many problems that they are not able to handle. It is often very difficult to facilitate change in the behavior of chronically neglectful families. For early childhood caregivers, neglect may also be chronic. For example, it might be standard practice for a caregiver to leave infants in their cribs for most of the day, rather than providing a safe area for them to move about.

Children of substance abusers often find themselves denied basic needs such as food, hygiene, shelter, and protection from the abuse and neglect perpetrated on them by others who frequent homes of drug abusers.


Chasnoff, I.J. (1989). Drug use in women: Establishing a standard of care. Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 562, 208-210. Gomby, D., and Shiono, P. (1991). Estimating the number of substance-exposed infants. The Future of Children: Adoption, 1 (1), 17. Schipper, W. (1991). Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control.


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