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Substance exposure linked to childhood mental health

Published:  15 July 2022

A world-renowned Sydney-based neonatologist, who is expert in the effects of opioids on unborn babies, told a neonatal nurses’ conference on Magnetic Island recently that babies exposed to substances in the womb go on to experience mental health issues during childhood.

 The conference is a collaboration between Townsville University Hospital and the Australian College of Neonatal Nurses.

 Professor Jul-ee Oei, a neonatologist at the Royal Hospital for Women at Randwick who is also health lead of the United Nations Office of Drug Control for long-term care of infants exposed to synthetic opioids, said the latest research showed the effects of substance exposure on unborn babies was long-term.

 “The withdrawal effects on newborn babies exposed to substances in the womb is well understood,” she said.

 “What we are seeing now is that this exposure goes on to have a detrimental effect in early childhood.”

 Professor Oei said the impact on children’s mental health had been one of the most salient findings.

 “The data is showing that by the age of five, one in two children who had a history of substance exposure had a mental health issue,” she said.

 “It’s not a widely recognised connection but it’s something the community as a whole needs to understand.”

 Professor Oei said it was difficult for doctors to predict an outcome for a baby exposed to substances during pregnancy.

 “It’s often difficult to get a concise history over the duration of a pregnancy but what we do know is that illegal drugs like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, ice, and cannabis can have a significant effect on an unborn baby,” she said.

 “What we are also starting to understand is that an increasing number of mental health and other problems in young children are caused by exposure to legal drugs including opioids.”

 Professor Oei said she wanted to create a greater understanding of drug use during pregnancy.

 “My message is that while, as doctors, we treat the effects of substance exposure, we need to understand the long game,” she said.

“After we fix the withdrawal and acute effects after birth, these children will continue to suffer the effects of substance exposure way beyond their babyhood.

“It’s a critical public health message that we need to get out there.”

Townsville University Hospital neonatologist Professor Yoga Kandasamy said he was delighted to have someone of Professor Oei’s calibre visit Townsville.

 “Professor Oei is second to none when it comes to expertise about substance exposure in unborn babies and we are very fortunate to have her here.”

 The conference received funding support from the Mona Kendall Nursing Development Fund.

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