The specter of producing a generation of brain-damaged “crack babies” was a major topic of discussion at the height of the War on Drugs in the 1980s and 1990s, but researchers say that children exposed to the drug prenatally — some of whom are now teenagers — have had relatively few problems.
The New York Times reported Jan. 27 that experts now say that while so-called crack babies did suffer some negative effects because of their mothers’ drug use, the impact was less severe than those suffered by children exposed to alcohol in the womb, and similar to the effects seem among children whose mothers smoked cigarettes while pregnant.
“Are there differences? Yes,” said Barry M. Lester of Brown University, director of the Maternal Lifestyle Study. “Are they reliable and persistent? Yes. Are they big? No.”
Federal studies show that current rate of cocaine use among pregnant women is about half that of alcohol use and a third of the rate of tobacco use.
However, cocaine use during pregnancy differs in that it has been treated as a moral, not medical issue, with mothers losing custody of cocaine-exposed children and some ending up in jail.
Prenatal cocaine use typically causes lower birth weights, but children often catch up with peers after birth. Recent studies have found no significant differences in IQ or language development between children exposed to cocaine before birth and those who were not. Some cocaine-exposed kids may have increased behavior problems.
Researchers say that factors like poor parenting, poverty, and stress seem to have a far greater impact on child development than prenatal cocaine exposure. “I think we can say this is an at-risk group,” said Harolyn Belcher, director of research at the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Family Center in Baltimore, Md. “But they have great potential to do well if we can mobilize resources around the family.”