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Using Strong Medications Like Opioids In Preterm Newborns Can Hinder Neurodevelopment

New research underscores the adverse effects prolonged use of in preterm babies can have on .

When a baby is born preterm, it means they arrived on or before the 37th week of pregnancy (whereas a full-term pregnancy is 40 weeks). The (CDC) estimates pre-term birth affects 10% of deliveries in the United States each year.


Additionally, according to statistics from 2018, pre-term births account for 17% of infant deaths in babies under the age of 1-years old.

Preterm birth is associated with a variety of health problems, such as:

  • Respiratory troubles
  • Difficulty with feeding
  • Developmental delays
  • Vision and/or hearing issues

Powerful medications – like benzodiazepines and opioids – are often used in very preterm infants, as they can help reduce pain, fussiness, and general discomfort. However, according to the results of a new study, the long-term use of .

In order to study the effects of these drugs on neurodevelopment, the researchers analyzed their impact on 932 preterm from early infancy to 2-years of age. The babies were all born prematurely between 24 to 27 weeks and were exposed to the medication for 1 week or more. 48% of the infants were female and 65% were Caucasian.

In total, 32% of the infants (297 in total) in the study were treated with either opioids or benzodiazepine, while 51% (481 babies) were given both medications. A small minority of the preterm babies– 17% of 158 infants – were not treated with the drugs.

The researchers measured the neurodevelopment outcomes of the children at various points during their first two years of life. To do this, the researchers focused on the following:

  • Motor development
  • Language proficiency

Data was collected between December 2013 to September 2016, though the analysis didn’t take place until 2020. The results of the study were published in earlier this month.

In total, the researchers found that the longer an infant was exposed to benzodiazepine and opioids, the more negative the effects on their overall health. They were at higher risk of:

  • Mortality
  • Increased hospital stays
  • Lower cognitive, motor, and language scores

Conversely, the infants that were not treated with these drugs or the ones that received either only benzodiazepine or opioids exhibited better neurodevelopment in comparison to babies that took both.

The researchers warn that benzodiazepine and opioids are not the only medications that may have long-term health consequences for premature babies. Additionally, preterm babies that had prolonged exposure to drugs like fentanyl, morphine, midazolam, and lorazepam also demonstrated poor neurodevelopment compared to those not exposed to the medications.


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