Children aged 3 to 5 years whose mothers used methamphetamine during pregnancy have a higher risk of suffering from behavioral problems, researchers from Brown University in Providence reported in the journal Pediatrics. The authors wrote that the risk of developing depression or suffering from heightened anxiety was found to be greater among kids whose mothers used methamphetamine while pregnant.

Linda LaGasse, PhD, and team explained that five-year olds who had been exposed to methamphetamine while in the womb were more likely to have ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) symptoms and externalizing behavior problems. Externalizing behaviors constitute an acting-out style, which could be aggressive, coercive, non-compliant, and/or impulsive.

LaGasse wrote:

“The ability to identify specific behavioral syndromes in children as early as preschool age could lead to the development of preventive intervention programs.”

The authors added that if interventions were provided early enough, the child would probably have a significantly smaller risk of eventually sliding into delinquency and psychopathology later on in life.

Women are more likely to use methamphetamine for the first time than men are. Methamphetamine usage is more widespread worldwide than the total, combined use of opiates plus cocaine.

The authors explain that previous studies had looked at what effect methamphetamine use during pregnancy might have on the growth of the fetus, and some neurological disorders during infancy. However, not much is known about what the consequences are for a child’s behavior.

In this study, LaGasse and team set out to determine what impact methamphetamine exposure in the womb might have on childhood behavior later on. They gathered data from the IDEAL (Infant Development, Environment, and Lifestyle) study, which looked at prenatal methamphetamine exposure in several parts of the USA.

Children who had been exposed to methamphetamine while their mothers were pregnant were compared to those who had had no exposure. Meconium screening as well as mothers’ self-reporting were used to determine whether methamphetamine was used during pregnancy in the exposed group, while in the comparison group mothers had a negative meconium screen and also self-reported no methamphetamine usage.

166 children who had been exposed to methamphetamine were compared to 164 with no exposure. An interviewer assed their behavior at the age of 3 years, and then again when they were 5, by examining a caregiver-reported Child Behavior checklist. The interviewer taught the caregivers how to complete the checklist.

The researchers found that the exposed children had a higher risk of developing some behavior problems. They factored out potential confounders, such as exposure to marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco, as well as a number of environmental risks.

Methamphetamine exposure was associated with a higher risk of emotional reactivity, anxiety and depression at ages 3 and 5 years. Externalizing and ADHD problems were considerably higher at age 5 among the exposed children, compared to the control group.

In an Abstract in the journal, the authors concluded:

“This first report of behavior problems in patients as young as 3 years associated with MA exposure identifies an important public health problem. Continued follow-up can inform the development of preventive intervention programs.”

Written by Christian Nordqvist