Prenatal Opioid Exposure: Neurodevelopmental Consequences and Future Research Priorities

Pediatrics. 2019 Sep;144(3):e20190128. doi: 10.1542/peds.2019-0128.


Neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS) has risen in prevalence from 1.2 per 1000 births in 2000 to 5.8 per 1000 births in 2012. Symptoms in neonates may include high-pitched cry, tremors, feeding difficulty, hypertonia, watery stools, and breathing problems. However, little is known about the neurodevelopmental consequences of prenatal opioid exposure in infancy, early childhood, and middle childhood. Even less is known about the cognitive, behavioral, and academic outcomes of children who develop NOWS. We review the state of the literature on the neurodevelopmental consequences of prenatal opioid exposure with a particular focus on studies in which NOWS outcomes were examined. Aiming to reduce the incidence of prenatal opioid exposure in the near future, we highlight the need for large studies with prospectively recruited participants and longitudinal designs, taking into account confounding factors such as socioeconomic status, institutional variations in care, and maternal use of other substances, to independently assess the full impact of NOWS. As a more immediate solution, we provide an agenda for future research that leverages the National Institutes of Health Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes program to address many of the serious methodologic gaps in the literature, and we answer key questions regarding the short- and long-term neurodevelopmental health of children with prenatal opioid exposure.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Child Development
  • Confounding Factors, Epidemiologic
  • Developmental Disabilities / etiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Intelligence
  • Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome / complications*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Research Design / standards
  • Risk Factors