Tik-babies: addicted at birth

Every day 10 babies are born to mothers who abuse tik (methamphetamine) in Tygerberg Hospital’s catchment area in the Western Cape alone. For these children, the stamp of their mother’s drug use will stay with them forever.

Children born to tik-abusing mothers are often underweight, have a small head circumference and will have limited cognitive function with short attention spans.

Professor Johan Smith, Neonatologist at the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health at Tygerberg Children’s Hospital, says that accurate numbers of babies born to tik-users are not yet available, but a minimum of 6% of mothers who give birth in the Western Cape admit to using tik.

With approximately 70 000 births in this province every year, this would mean at least 4 200 of these babies are exposed to tik. And that’s only in one province.

Tik use in pregnancy

When a woman is pregnant nutrients and oxygen are transported from her to the unborn baby through the placenta. But an expectant mother who uses tik compromises this process.

The tik causes blood vessels in the placenta to constrict, causing high blood pressure in the mother and decreasing the transfer of nutrients and oxygen. This limits intrauterine growth and may cause premature births and even an abruption of the placenta.

The drug also directly affects the placenta function and often the blood vessels of the unborn baby in organs such as the brain and the gut are affected. Tik also attaches to specific receptors in various organs, including the brain.

The use of tik during pregnancy leads to shorter and lighter babies with a smaller head-circumference than other babies, showing that brain growth was inhibited. Tik literally kills brain cells.

Specific parts of the brain are affected and cause a decrease in attention span, verbal memory, long-term memory and cognitive function. The child’s development will be slower and he will struggle at school. Tik may cause a significant drop in the IQ of the child and it is believed that these effects are irreversible.

Tik-exposed babies are often born prematurely, which can in many cases lead to respiratory distress, jaundice, hypothermia, hypoglycaemia and feeding problems.Mothers who abuse tik often also smoke and abuse alcohol. All these substances have extreme side-effects on the developing baby.

These babies are often born with withdrawal symptoms, such as agitation and vomiting – which in turn causes feeding problems. Smith says some babies also appear jittery and can even have convulsions.

Born into a tik-friendly environment

Mothers who use tik generally lead unhealthy lives with poor personal hygiene, irregular and poor diet and weight loss. If they still use tik, they are not emotionally present to bond with their baby. These women are often at risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases and often exposed to violence, which can also affect the unborn baby.

Because these mothers are addicted to drugs, they can often show symptoms such as aggression, anxiety, irritability, paranoia and psychosis. When on a ‘high’, they can often go days without eating or sleeping.

These symptoms and lack of routine are not ideal conditions for raising a baby. Some mothers even abandon their newborn babies in the hospital when the drive for drugs becomes too strong, which places a burden on the country’s social welfare system.

These babies require intensive medical care. As they will struggle with mainstream schooling, they may require schooling for children with special needs – if they are provided with access to it. Children often become frustrated when they struggle with schooling, which often leads to behavioural and emotional problems.

Smith says that a large portion of the high drop-out rates in schools is related to exposure of unborn babies to tik, smoke and alcohol. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that high drop-out rate will result in unemployment and thus increase the risk of gang-related activities.”

In pregnant women, what happens to mom, happens to baby. And the poor decisions made by some mothers will stay with those children for the rest of their lives.

 - (Christa Rohwer, Occupational Therapist for Health24, January 2013)

(Reviewed by Prof Johan Smith, Neonatologist at the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health at Tygerberg Children’s Hospital)

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