What You Must Know When Adopting or Fostering an Opiate-Exposed Baby

Dawn Davenport


Adoptive parents may be matched with an expectant mother that used opiates, including methadone and suboxone, during her pregnancy. Foster homes are also sorely needed for opiate-exposed babies. Adopting or fostering an opiate-exposed baby is scary for most parents to consider.

adopting or fostering an opiate exposed baby

Opiate exposure during pregnancy, including when a pregnant woman uses hydrocodone (Vicodin®), oxycodone (OxyContin®), codeine, morphine, heroin, fentanyl, methadone, and suboxone, can cause the baby to become dependent on the drug. A baby born dependent that experiences withdrawal is usually diagnosed with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) at birth.

What You Must Know Before Adopting or Fostering an Opiate Exposed Baby

Not all opiate-exposed babies will experience symptoms of withdrawal. The timing and dosage of the expectant mother’s drug use will influence whether the baby experiences Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, and the degree of long-term effects from prenatal opiate exposure is not related to whether the baby was born dependent.

Withdrawal begins shortly after birth and symptoms usually last from 3 days to 2 weeks. Morphine is usually the medication of choice to treat newborns with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) with the dosage set to relieve symptoms and then slowly tapered off.

Symptoms of NAS can range from mild (colic-like symptoms) to severe (seizures and pauses in breathing). Typical symptoms of an opiate-exposed baby include tremors, tight muscle tone, excessive sucking, poor feeding, and difficulty in self-calming and self-regulation.

There are things you can do to help an opiate-exposed baby.

8 Tips For Coping with Withdrawal in an Opiate Exposed Baby

Humans, including baby humans, differ significantly in what soothes and nurtures us, so it is important to read the baby’s cues for what works but try the following:

  1. Decreasing external stimulation (a quiet environment with dark or dimmed lights)
  2. Cuddling and rocking
  3. Swaddling
  4. Skin-to-skin contact (kangaroo care)
  5. Nonnutritive sucking (pacifier)
  6. Warmth
  7. Massage
  8. Waterbed

Withdrawal and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome are temporary and your comfort will make a difference.

Will My Care Make a Difference?

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a pediatrician and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says that while there’s no evidence of “huge, obvious differences” in opiate-exposed children, “there is a lot of research showing that the social environment plays a critical role in determining a child’s future.”

As a parent adopting or fostering an opiate-exposed baby you need to know that the worst usually lasts only a short period of time and your presence and comfort makes a difference

Creating a Family Radio show/Podcast 2016-11-22 with Dr. Julia Bledsoe
Maquire, D., Care of the infant with neonatal abstinence syndrome: strength of the evidence. J Perinat Neonatal Nurs. 2014 Jul-Sep;28(3):204-11. Downloaded 2018-05-21.
Image credit: Dan Zink (swaddled baby);
Kim (newborn)

21/05/2018 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog, Fostering, Fostering Blog | 2 Comments

2 Responses to What You Must Know When Adopting or Fostering an Opiate-Exposed Baby

  1. Avatar MaryLynette says:

    This article came at the perfect time. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this possibility and how to care for a substance exposed newborn. We are in the waiting stage now. Reading this article and seeing the additional resources you cite gives me hope. I’m looking forward to reading more.

    • Tracy Whitney Tracy Whitney says:

      We’re so glad it was helpful, MaryLynette. For more support and help to manage the wait to be matched, check out our online support group: http://ow.ly/J6W250wdzqm

      You’ll get to learn from a lot of BTDT adoptive parents, birth parents and adult adoptees!

      Thanks for reading.

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