Open Letter to Journalists and Editors About “Addicted Babies”

Open Letter to Journalists and Editors About "Addicted Babies" by Lynn R. Webster @LynnRWebsterMD

Babies Cannot Be Born Addicted to Drugs

“Babies Born Addicted,” “Addicted Babies,” “Babies with Addiction,” and similar headlines appear nearly daily in the media. This is because babies exhibit horrible withdrawal symptoms if they are born physically dependent on opioids, and it pulls at our heartstrings to see them suffer. But it misleads media consumers, policymakers, and family members into believing the newborns are addicted. They confuse signs of withdrawal with opioid addiction.

Confusion is understandable. Yet the fact is that babies cannot be born addicted to drugs, and they don’t deserve the stigma that accompanies the label.

The Labels “Addicted Babies” Causes Harm

Robert Newman, president emeritus of Beth Israel Medical Center, tells Tonic: “It has enormous potential harm to the babies, as the baby grows up, and to the family because of the stigma of the term ‘addict.’” If a parent says that a baby was born addicted, “that’s the kiss of death. A lot of parents don’t want their child sitting next to an addict.”

It is important to understand what addiction is and what it is not. Addiction is characterized by the 4 Cs: craving, loss of control in using the substance, compulsion to use the drug, and continued use despite harm. It is defined by volitional behaviors. Withdrawal can occur in people with addiction, but it is not evidence of the disease. Therefore, babies cannot be addicted because addiction requires a drug seeking behavior. Babies don’t seek a drug when they are born.

Karen Buchi M.D., Chief of the Division of General Pediatrics for University of Utah Health Care, tells Healthfeed, “Addiction is the maladaptive behavior that surrounds dependency. Babies are NOT born addicted.”

It’s possible that some journalists don’t know better, or they opt to call babies “addicted” because the sound bite will grab readers’, viewers’, and listeners’ attention. It is also possible that they have limited space or airtime, so they use “addicted babies” as a type of sloppy shorthand.

Some journalists probably know that babies who are exposed to opioids in the womb may be born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), but they may believe that NAS is just a technical term for addiction. They’re incorrect. NAS is withdrawal from, rather than addiction to, opioids.

Alternative Phrases to Use That Are More Accurate and Respectful

So it is inaccurate, as well as unfair, to say that babies are addicted to drugs. You can categorize them by saying:

  • Babies affected by addiction
  • Babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome
  • Babies born in withdrawal
  • Babies born to a mother with the disease of addiction

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Most of all, I appreciate your treating all babies with the dignity and compassion they deserve.


  1. Jade on May 25, 2018 at 9:21 pm

    I think that this narrative is infinitely important, especially right now, but I also think it’s important to mention medication assisted treatment (MAT) to this equation. As you may know, MAT is currently the gold standard in treatment for people affected by OUD and women and mothers are not exempt from being affected by it. Very often, women find themselves pregnant in the throws of addiction or even while they are already in a MAT program. It’s considered dangerous for a pregnant woman to wean off of opioid medications due to the increased risk of relapse, as well as the chance of miscarriage. Therefore, these women give birth to babies who are at risk of NAS. These women mercilessly beat themselves up for putting their baby in the position to go through withdrawal and they do not need help from the media or the judgemental views of the public to do so. I run two online support groups for people on MAT, one co-ed and the other specifically for mothers, and I’ve noticed a divide, due to miseducation, even among the MAT community and it is incredibly discouraging. These woman need support, especially given the fact that they have done what medical professionals consider to be the best chance they and their children have at a better life.

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