Creating Positive Change for Babies, One Word at a Time

I’ve been critical of the media’s language in describing aspects of the opioid crisis. To solve the opioid crisis, we have to understand it and use terms that are factual but without spin. I believe the media could be a force in motivating people — the public as well as lawmakers — to take constructive steps to end the crisis. They can also prejudice readers and create attitudes that are not helpful to solving the problem.

Words and Their Impact on Babies

In a prior blog, How the Media Fuels the Opioid Crisis, I wrote about the dangers of inaccurate reporting. As an example, I discussed a myth that some in the media perpetuates that “babies are born addicted to opioids.” I cited an example of a headline-grabbing newspaper story in a Philadelphia Inquirer Daily News article.

I went on to report that a Google search for “addicted babies” turned up 565,000 hits. “Addicted newborns” had 371,000 results in Google. “Born addicted to opiates” had 545,000 Google matches. Of course, babies cannot be born addicted, but based on their reporting, some journalists didn’t seem to have that understanding.

A Positive Change in Words

However, I have noticed a striking difference in headlines over the past several months. I have found almost no recent articles that have included the words “addicted babies.” Instead, I’ve been seeing more journalists use the phrases “babies born to addicted mothers” and “Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.”

Here are examples of articles that have used the more accurate terminology recently to describe the babies with NAS in Medical Express, Pediatrics, and Science Direct. It’s too soon to say whether or not this reflects a better understanding on the part of journalists of what is occurring with babies born to mothers who are opioid dependent. But it might.

In any case, I see this as a positive development. No baby born to a mother with addiction should ever suffer the stigma of being called an “addicted baby.”

Changing Words Can Change a Baby’s World

The sea change that I hope for will not happen overnight. Less informed journalists may be slow to change their nomenclature. For example, as I was writing this blog, an article from a newspaper struck me as a throwback because it used the phrase “drug-addicted babies” in its headline.

But I’m seeing less and less of that uninformed language in the media now, and I want to acknowledge the enlightened journalists whose recent articles include phrases such as “born to addicted mothers” and “neonatal abstinence syndrome ” instead of “addicted babies.”  I appreciate the fact that they are not further stigmatizing babies.

Words matter. Using the right words, at the right times, can be a powerful way to define and work toward solving  complex problems like addictions. I am hopeful that we will continue to see reporting that accurately reports the opioid problem but without spin.

Purchase my book, The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us (available on Amazon), or read a free excerpt here.

The Painful Truth @lynnrwebstermd Lynn R. Webster

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Copyright 2017, Lynn Webster, MD


  1. Michael Schatman on January 23, 2017 at 1:40 am

    Eloquently stated, as always, Lynn.

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