Neonatal Drug Withdrawal

Neonatal Drug Withdrawal

(Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome)


Neonatal drug withdrawal occurs when a baby who has been exposed to drugs in the uterus develops withdrawal symptoms. This occurs because the baby is no longer exposed to the drug the mother was taking. This condition can be caused by medications, alcohol, and illegal drugs. It can take weeks to months for a baby to fully withdraw from a drug. Without treatment, this can be a life-threatening condition. If you used drugs during your pregnancy, tell your doctor right away. Your baby can be tested and treated after delivery.

Blood Traveling Through Mother's Placenta to Baby

baby fetus placenta
Drugs and alcohol travel through this path from mother to baby.
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


This condition is caused when a woman uses drugs and/or alcohol while pregnant. Drugs that cause this condition include:

  • Heroin
  • Methadone
  • Amphetamines
  • Cocaine
  • Alcohol
  • Opioids
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Barbiturates
  • Antidepressants

Risk Factors

Factors that may increase your baby's risk of having neonatal drug withdrawal include:

  • Drug, medication, or alcohol abuse while pregnant
  • Drug use or dependency


Depending on the type and amount of drug exposure, symptoms can develop within hours to days after birth.

Neonatal drug withdrawal may cause:

  • Irritability
  • Poor feeding
  • Difficulty sucking
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • High-pitched cry
  • Crying a lot
  • Sweating
  • Fast breathing
  • Shaking
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Yawning
  • Sneezing
  • Difficulty breathing through the nose
  • Increased muscle tone
  • Fever
  • Seizures


The doctor will examine your baby based on their symptoms and your medical and drug history. To diagnose your baby correctly, the doctor needs to know what drug you took during pregnancy, how much was taken, and how often. Your baby will have a physical exam.

Your baby's bodily fluids, tissues, and waste products will be tested. This can be done with:

  • Urine tests
  • Blood tests
  • Hair tests
  • Stool tests

Your baby's bodily structures may need to be viewed. This can be done with x-rays.


Treatment options include the following:

Close Monitoring

The baby may need to stay in the hospital to be closely monitored for:

  • Signs of seizures
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Other serious withdrawal symptoms


The baby may be given medications to help during withdrawal. Medications will differ based on the drug from which the baby is withdrawing.

Supportive Care

The baby may need IV fluids, oxygen, high-calorie formula, tube-feeding, or other support.


To help reduce your baby‘s chances of getting neonatal drug withdrawal:

  • Stop taking drugs before becoming pregnant or as soon as you learn you are pregnant.
  • After you become pregnant, talk to your doctor about any drugs you have taken. Get regular prenatal care.
  • Get treatment for drug abuse problems before becoming pregnant.


National Institute on Drug Abuse
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration


Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
Toronto Area of Narcotics Anonymous


Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Improving treatment for drug-exposed infants. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US). 1993;Report No:(SMA)93-2011.
Neonatal opioid withdrawal. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed... . Updated June 19, 2017. Accessed September 25, 2017.
Schub T, Ashley TJ, et al. Neonatal abstinence syndrome: an overview. EBSCO Nursing Reference Center website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Updated July 15, 2016. Accessed September 25, 2017.
Last reviewed September 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Kari Kassir, MD
Last Updated: 9/30/2016

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This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

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