Over the last two decades, drug and alcohol abuse by pregnant women has spread to epidemic proportions. Maternal drug abuse has neurobehavioral and somatic effects which may be long-lasting and devastating to the offspring. Opiates, such as heroin and pain killers that contain a narcotic component, are widely abused today. A prominent manifestation of fetal exposure to these drugs is the neonatal withdrawal syndrome, which typically includes wakefulness, jitteriness and other symptoms of cerebral irritability. These, in turn, may interupt early mother-infant interaction, affecting the infant's long-term emotional and cognitive development. Fetal cocaine exposure may cause neonatal cerebral irritability, changes in habituation responses, reduced head circumference, poor mental development and long-lasting impairment of the brain. Benzodiazepines can cause fetal dysmorphism (including microcephaly), neurological and behavioral impairments and neonatal withdrawal symptoms. Maternal use of amphetamines may cause neonatal dysphoria and agitation, as well as long-term lassitude and drowsiness that may result in poor feeding. Fetal exposure to alcohol may cause neonatal withdrawal symptoms, maladaptive behavior in childhood and the fetal alcohol syndrome (including microcephaly). Maternal alcohol consumption is also a common cause of mental retardation. Fetal exposure to marijuana may delay, maturation of the visual system and impair memory and verbal performance at 2 years of age. The inevitable conclusion is that society must seek ways not only to treat, but also to prevent this epidemic. To this end, a key factor would be to identify potential drug abusing mothers before they reach the stage of prenatal care and educate them regarding the fatal consequences of drug abuse.
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