An Australian study of babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) has found a worrying trend for their future educational outcomes.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) refers to a newborn withdrawing from its mother’s addictive drugs. 

A diagnosis of NAS in newborns is strongly associated with poor and deteriorating school performance through childhood, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics and co-authored by UOW researchers Professor Ian Wright, from the School of Medicine and Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute, and Professor Edward Melhuish, from the School of Psychology and Early Start Research Institute.

Based on their findings, the authors are calling for ongoing support beyond withdrawal for children with NAS in an effort to help improve school performance and long term  socioeconomic outcomes. 

The study compared a group of 2234 babies born with NAS in New South Wales between 2000 and 2006, with a control group of 4330 children matched for gestation, socioeconomic status and gender, and with other NSW children born during the same time period.

The research team, led by Dr Ju-Lee Oei from the University of New South Wales, then analysed the mean test results of each group in schooling years 3, 5 and 7 from National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) data.

The findings are stark: in year 3, mean test scores for children with NAS were significantly lower than the two other cohorts, and “results deteriorate even more by high school … by grade 7, children with NAS scored lower than other children in grade 5.”

NAS is one of the fastest growing public health problems in the world: in the United States, it is estimated that an infant is born with NAS every 25 minutes. 

Information on the ongoing academic performance of children born with NAS has not been widely studied, is due to “difficulties in long-term follow-up”, though it is understood children with a neonatal history of NAS “may be at risk for neurodevelopment and cognitive problems”.

Poor academic performance is known to increase poor outcomes into adulthood, including psychiatric and physical illness, unemployment, delinquency, crime, drug use and intergenerational disadvantage.

The study bridged the gap between NAS children and school performance records, and has provided a compelling reason to support children with NAS ... beyond withdrawal to minimise the risk of school failure and its consequences.

“The high risk of poor academic performance in this vulnerable group of children is applicable to all countries. Strategies to address this risk, and prevent poor adult outcomes and intergenerational vulnerability, should be urgently addressed.”

Oei JL, Melhuish E, Uebel H, et al. Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome and High School Performance. Paediatrics. 2017;139(2):e20162651