Today’s article is brought to you through the generous support of our friends at the Jockey Being Family Foundation, who share our vision to provide education and support to strengthen families.

Trauma-informed parenting interventions focus on helping your child overcome the early challenges they experienced. Similarly, interventions for a child with prenatal exposure can help you scaffold and nurture your child toward a thriving, healthy life. However, new adoptive parents might not always know that their child was exposed prenatally to drugs, alcohol, and other substances that harm a developing baby. What are the common symptoms of prenatal exposure? What can you do to support your child as they grow up in your family?

Common Symptoms of Prenatal Exposure

Our list is a broad-brush stroke approach and is not meant to be a diagnostic tool. If you suspect your child had prenatal exposure, consider whether they are exhibiting any of these symptoms and reach out to your pediatrician or educational specialists for support.

1. Developmental Milestone Delays

Our kids impacted by prenatal exposure often seem to lag behind their chronologically similar peers. They might act several years younger than peers, be academically delayed, and have unevenly developing motor skills. The medical term for this is “dysmaturity.”

2. Processing Issues

Prenatal exposure impacts how the brain processes information and utilizes that data. There are several types of processing skills to consider:

Sensory Processing

Consider how your child reacts to tags, food textures, sounds, repetitive motions, and other daily “input.” What does he do with it? His sensory processing is how – or if – he can take in and experience the world around him. The severity of a child’s sensory processing impacts can range from a diagnosed disorder, known as Sensory Processing Disorder, to preferences that cause avoidance or seeking input.

Language Processing

Language processing is how your child develops, uses, and understands language. Again, the range of impacts in language processing can range widely. Think about how and when your child learns to say new words, interpret the sounds of language, and attach meaning to the words with which they are familiar. Prenatal exposure can impact all those skills. Language processing disorders and delays will impact later learning milestones.

Processing Speed

Prenatal exposure can detrimentally impact the speed with which your child’s brain processes the information from the world around him. Does your child take a while to think about what he’s hearing or seeing? Does he hesitate even if he’s familiar with the activity before him?

3. Executive Function Challenges

Closely related to processing issues, executive function is how your child’s brain solves problems, tackles abstract concepts, and carries information from one situation to another. Judgment is part of executive function, so impulse control is often delayed or lacking in a child with prenatal exposure. Delays in executive function also create difficulty in understanding cause and effect relationships.

4. Memory Retention

Many kids with prenatal exposure history struggle with a working memory of intangible concepts and factual information. Consider how your child handles his daily routine: does he remember that he should brush his teeth every day after breakfast, then put on his shoes? Are you frustrated that he can’t remember how to brush his teeth or make his bed?

5. Motor Skill Differences

Prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol can create motor coordination or control differences. Does your child’s fine or gross motor skills seem delayed? Do they struggle with balance? Are they awkward or clumsy to a concerning degree? Can they handle tasks that require fine motor coordination?

**Again, this list is neither exhaustive nor a diagnostic tool. Keeping a journal or running record of your observations about their development will be helpful. You can share these with your pediatrician and educational support team to pursue a diagnosis or when crafting your support plans.

What Parents Can Do About The Symptoms of Prenatal Exposure

As with many other issues impacting our child’s developmental progress, the earlier we can catch the symptoms and provide interventions, the better we can meet their needs. However, it’s not too late to start interventions, and we want to assure you that resources and support are available for both you and your child.

Start at Home

When you suspect your child is struggling with symptoms of prenatal exposure, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and feel defeated. You can start doing several things today in your parenting and home environment that will support your child’s challenges. Again, these suggestions are not comprehensive, but as you continue to educate yourself, you will learn what to add to your interventions at home.

1. Adjust your expectations.

Consider if your expectations for age-typical behavior might need to be adjusted. Parenting a child who struggles quite often means that we are the ones who must change course and tweak how we define our thoughts about progress and success.

Ask yourself a few questions to help you think through supporting your child:

  • How can you make “home” feel safe, welcoming, and accepting of your child?
  • Does your child feel loved and affirmed, regardless of his performance at school or on his soccer team?
  • Do you feel satisfied with your relationship and connection with this child?
  • What can you do to change your thoughts and responses, so your child knows that his value and preciousness are not related to performance or achievement?

2. Parent the child that is in front of you.

Raising a child with prenatal exposure also means adjusting your understanding of your child’s developmental abilities and meeting them there. You are releasing them of your expectations by giving them space to “be” where they are. But you are also freeing yourself to attend to their brain and behavior and meet their needs accordingly.

Free course: Practical Tips for Raising Kids with Prenatal Exposure

The mismatch between a child’s chronological age and their behavior or abilities often creates stress, frustration, and anxiety for both child and parent. You can scaffold your child through these moments of dysregulation by accepting where he is and parenting the age or stage he is presenting. Here are a few practical applications of scaffolds that can help:

  • Give time and space for processing.
  • Be present for and empathetic to the emotions of the moment
  • Simplify the dilemma and the environment
  • Have a plan (predictable and repeatable) for calming
  • Anticipate needs based on previous experiences (like cold water, a protein snack, quiet space)

3. Establish predictability and routine.

Because our kids with prenatal exposure often struggle with ordered thoughts, organizational skills, and other executive functions, they need us to provide the structure for them. When you have a repeatable routine for every morning before school – one that they can see to read and track as they go – you give them clear expectations and a plan to follow.

Simplify your chore charts, daily schedules, and “house rules” for your child’s individual needs and abilities. But don’t forget to include fun in those routines – your kids need to know that you value time for building relationships, not just for getting things done.

Work with The School

There are educational professionals in your school district to whom you can turn for support for your child. Knowing how to start the conversation is often the hardest step. If you haven’t already, craft an email to your child’s teacher summarizing your concerns about the symptoms of prenatal exposure you observe and the impacts in the classroom. Putting that information in writing, with a request for a meeting or evaluation of your child, gets you on the path to educational interventions.

If you already have a diagnosis or have an educational plan (called an IEP), stay in contact with the team supporting the plan. Each time the plan is renewed or reviewed, you have the opportunity to read it and ask questions before finalization. However, most educators will welcome your questions whenever you are concerned or notice changes in your child’s abilities. We always recommend that you start these conversations in an email for the safety net of a paper trail.

Many parents don’t know that they can ask for additional education on challenging issues for their kids. It’s not uncommon for school districts to offer webinars, conferences, or parent meetings for this kind of support. Some districts even offer parent committees to ensure student needs get met and adequate representation is available. If your district does not provide those things, tap into the team for recommendations to continue educating yourself on your child’s needs.

Keep Educating Yourself About Prenatal Exposure

We often say that “knowledge is power.” When you are raising a child with prenatal exposure, we cannot stress it enough. In addition to the resources that your school team can recommend, we suggest the following supports for parents who want to keep learning about the needs of children with prenatal exposure:

Science is evolving rapidly on how to meet the needs of neurodiverse kids best, and it’s fascinating to hear about breakthroughs that benefit our kids. You will be able to support your child from a position of strength when you keep up with the available information.

Image Credits: Kampus Production; RODNAE Productions; Vanessa Loring