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What are the Effects of Methadone on Babies?

By K. Gierok
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Typically, the effects of methadone on babies are classified according to whether the drugs have been used for a short period of time, or have been abused chronically. In the short term, methadone on babies can cause a number of serious health concerns, such as lowered blood pressure and heart rates. Long-term abuse of methadone, in contrast, more often affects infant weight and size. In many cases, babies born to a mother who has abused methadone will themselves often suffer from methadone withdrawal after birth. Studies suggest, however, that these symptoms can be reversed through breastfeeding.

In many cases, using methadone even once can lead to very serious effects on an unborn baby. Immediate effects of methadone on babies can include very low blood pressure; a substantially decreased heart rate; dryness in the eyes, mouth, and nose; raised intracranial pressure; and other similar symptoms. In most cases, these side effects of methadone use on babies can be life threatening, and require immediate medical treatment. Additionally, women who use methadone even for a short period of time may experience a miscarriage due to this drug use.

In the long term, the use of methadone on babies can lead to conditions that are just as serious. Long-term use of methadone can result in a decreased rate of growth for the infant, in both height and weight. In addition, babies who are born to mothers with a long history of methadone use often have a head circumference that is smaller than normal. Fortunately, these effects disappear as the infant ages and matures into childhood. Babies born to women who abuse methadone, however, generally have a substantially lower mental capacity than those born to mothers who do not use drugs, and may score lower in both behavioral and psychological tests.

Babies who have been exposed to high amounts of methadone also commonly develop methadone withdrawal, otherwise known as neonatal opiate abstinence syndrome. This is a condition that affects a number of systems in the body, including the respiratory system and the central and autonomic nervous system, among others. Babies who are born with this condition are at an increased risk for the development of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, as compared to other, healthier babies. Studies have found, however, that symptoms of this condition can be eased through breastfeeding by the mother or another surrogate. In many cases, however, breastfeeding may be difficult or even impossible.

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Discussion Comments
By SarahGen — On Oct 21, 2013

I read about a little boy who was given methadone by his parents in the paper. I think he was only five or six weeks old. The poor thing almost died and spent many days in the intensive care unit.

By stoneMason — On Oct 21, 2013

@fify-- Those are great questions about methadone and pregnancy. I'm not an expert on the subject and there are not many studies done on this topic, but I'll try to answer.

As far as I know, any use of methadone and similar medications during pregnancy puts the fetus and infant at risk. An unborn who is exposed to very small amounts of the drug later in the pregnancy will have less problems. But we can't say that the baby will be absolutely fine.

There was a study done on the effects of prescription medication use during pregnancy and medication abuse during pregnancy. Infants of women who abused drugs had more problems. They were more likely to have withdrawal symptoms and they were more likely to be born premature. But even infants who are exposed to smaller amounts of medications later in the pregnancy can have these issues. There are no guarantees.

By fify — On Oct 20, 2013

What about pregnant women who suffer from chronic pain and their infants?

I've heard that the fetus is at most risk from medications during the first trimester. If a mother takes low doses of methadone in the second or third trimester to manage pain, will the baby still have problems before and after birth? Will the infant have methadone withdrawal symptoms?

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