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Methadone exposed kids could be at risk of academic difficulty

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

University of Canterbury PhD psychology student Samantha Lee has been awarded a three year $120,000 Lotteries Health Research scholarship to continue researching children born to mothers on methadone during pregnancy.

Over the last 40 years, methadone has been the most commonly used method of treating pregnant women with an opioid addiction.

Recent research indicates an estimated 10,000 New Zealanders are opiate-dependent. For these individuals, opioid substitution treatment using methadone is the treatment of choice and pregnant women are prioritised for this service. In Christchurch, typically 20 to 30 infants are born each year to women on the Christchurch methadone programme.

A University of Canterbury research study led by Dr Jacki Henderson is assessing the developmental outcomes of nine-year-old children whose mothers were on methadone during pregnancy. The university’s Canterbury Child Development Research Group led by Professor Lianne Woodward, now at Harvard University, has been running the methadone in pregnancy study since 2003.

The study follows a large group of children born to women in a methadone treatment programme and a group of non-drug exposed children of the same age. Assessments of the children have been completed at birth, 18 months, two years, and four-and-a-half years.

The group is part-way through the nine year follow-up assessments of these children, supported by a grant awarded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand.

Methadone is the only drug treatment available for pregnant women with opiate addiction in New Zealand. Pregnant women are given priority for methadone treatment in New Zealand, despite lengthy waiting lists for the programme,’’ Lee says.

Methadone is a safer alternative for both the mother and the developing foetus, in terms of nutrition, maternal health risk, and foetal growth compared to continued use of illicit opiates such as heroin.

Methadone-exposed babies have a healthier average birth-weight than heroin-exposed infants, but are also observed to have a more prolonged drug withdrawal period. Only a handful of studies have researched the outcomes of these babies past early infancy, and those that have followed children into early childhood have small group numbers and poor participant retention.

However we have been studying the development of both methadone-exposed and non-exposed children across infancy and childhood, with large group numbers and over 90 percent of participants remaining in the study to date. To date, this is the most successful study worldwide studying these families.

My masters thesis findings indicated that at four-and-a-half years old children exposed prenatally to methadone were experiencing more school readiness challenges across all domains outlined by the American Academy of Paediatrics compared with other children. My PhD research, with a more broad focus, will assess the academic achievement and school progress of these two groups of children at nine years of age.

I will also be gaining information about their progress across the school curriculum, together with a number of international standardised tests of academic achievement. This research hopes to identify some common predictors of academic performance for all children, including attention, behaviour and emotional difficulties at pre-school age.

By identifying malleable factors between early childhood mental health and developmental challenges, and academic achievement will assist our research group in designing early preventative interventions to assist in optimal developmental outcomes’’ Lee says.

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