Prenatal Opioid Exposure, Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome/Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal Syndrome, and Later Child Development Research: Shortcomings and Solutions

J Addict Med. Mar/Apr 2019;13(2):90-92. doi: 10.1097/ADM.0000000000000463.


: The opioid epidemic has brought with it an increasing focus on the incidence of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) (also known as Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal Syndrome) in neonates prenatally exposed to opioids, and recently, in the putative long-term effects of NAS on child development. The purpose of the present paper is three-fold: (1) outline shortcomings regarding the current research relating NAS to child development; (2) propose solutions to minimize these shortcomings; and (3) recommend an alternative conceptual framework to understanding developmental problems in later childhood presumed to be a result of NAS. The paper focuses on issues regarding definitions of the population of interest, choice of comparison groups, matching practices, statistical analyses, and an implicit single-cause fallacy related to NAS. It offers possible solutions to the problems identified in each of these areas. Use of a NAS or Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal Syndrome diagnosis as a main indicator of adverse developmental outcomes poses potential radiating harm to the child and the family and misses the opportunity to see the complexities of interpersonal, intrapersonal, and environmental factors that contribute to the long-term developmental trajectories of children.

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / adverse effects*
  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use
  • Biomedical Research / trends*
  • Child
  • Child Development
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Methadone / therapeutic use
  • Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome / diagnosis
  • Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome / drug therapy*
  • Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome / epidemiology
  • Opiate Substitution Treatment / methods*
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Methadone