How Drug Addiction Impacts Infant Care

Substance abuse short circuits neural connections.

Posted Mar 24, 2015

Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
Mother and Child, artist Romare Bearden
Source: Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

Research with inner city, low-income mothers in New Haven, Connecticut, shows why caregivers with addiction to cocaine or heroin are less attentive to an infant’s visual or auditory cues.

Long-term therapies conducted during in-home visits reveal that mothers with substance abuse disorders more often withdraw from infant distress and give shorter feedings. They also express higher rates of aggressive behavior in parent-infant interactions, such as physical intrusiveness.

With childbirth changes occuring in an individual’s mental life, parenthood alters the neural system: It modifies the connection between certain neurons that influence one another through a feedback loop in the brain.

An infant’s cry activates components of neural circuitry that prompt a healthy mother to respond to the child's distress by trying to sooth it and ameliorate pain: by holding, rocking, or speaking softly to the baby.

By contrast, for the drug-addicted parent such stimulus triggers avoidant behavior toward the infant, increased anxiety on the part of the adult, and further drug consumption to quell the caregiver's frustration.  The gratification of drug intake thus replaces the emotional reward of caregiving.  This is what researchers call a "false reward.”  Addiction, in this way, short circuits neural connections between parent and child and compromises parenting.  According to Linda Mayes, the balance between reward and stress forms the basis of social attachment.  

Behavioral observations conducted by Mayes at the Yale Child Study Center are supplemented with imaging techniques that measure grey matter changes, revealing the activation of certain brain regions that illustrate the relationship between a parent's experience of “stress” and “rewards” during infant care. 

The experience of attunement is eroded by early adverse conditions such as poverty or parental substance abuse, which often coexist. Gradually, such inattention or neglect on the part of the parent blunts a child’s ability to develop adaptive strategies for dealing with adversity in adulthood.

The child-caregiver couple depends on the emotional support of another parent, when there is one. The family unit relies on a socially and economically nurturing community. Mayes suggests the most important social policy begins with interventions that combat toxic stress in poor populations during infant care and therefore support children at greater risk for developmental impairments.


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