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"Rise in babies born addicted to drugs"



During the crack crisis, myths about "crack babies" caused serious harm to women, especially women of color. The truth is, there are no "addicted babies." Newborns exposed to opioids and other drugs in the womb can be born "dependent" and receive a diagnosis for "neonatal abstinence syndrome," an acute, treatable condition. Inflating the risks of NAS has consequences that harm women and prevent help seeking.

National Advocates for Pregnant Women


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Elizabeth Brico, former methadone patient, writer

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Numerous news articles covering the overdose crisis have invoked the term "addicted baby" to describe Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (also called NAS), a condition caused when newborns withdraw from certain drugs they were exposed to in the womb before birth. 








The Tired Narrative: 

Addicted baby.png

The Informed Narrative: 

To avoid reporting scientifically inaccurate information and stigmatizing language about NAS, journalists can use phrases such as, "newborns exposed to opioids in the womb/during pregnancy," "born dependent," "experienced withdrawal symptoms," or "diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome."

Addiction is defined as the repeated use of a substance despite negative consequences. Newborns, by definition, cannot be "addicted" to anything. They can be born dependent on whatever substances their mother was taking during the pregnancy. This condition is not specific to opioids.

Media Analysis of Uninformed Narratives About Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome ​

Between January 2015 and June 2019, we tracked the use of misinformation related to neonatal abstinence syndrome in local, state and national news content. Of note, 14% (42/298) of the articles analyzed used an uninformed phrase in a stigmatizing manner in the title, but did not use harmful language in the article body. This underscores the prevalence of "clickbait" headlines in NAS reporting, where articles utilize a harmful phrase to drive attention to the story. 



We utilized the Media Cloud information system to compile a dataset of mainstream media content related to neonatal abstinence syndrome from January 2015 to June 2019. Within this larger database, we queried search terms specific to stigmatizing language, including "addicted babies" and/or "heroin babies" and/or "babies born addicted to drugs." In all, 298 articles were ultimately selected from an original set of potentially-related 800 entries from national, state, and local news sources. Articles were excluded from analysis if they did not discuss NAS, had broken links, or were published prior to 2015. Using Media Cloud's social media capabilities, we also quantified the number of Facebook shares for each article. These articles were coded for their publication date, number of Facebook shares, news source and location (national, state, or regional), its speakers (journalist, comments member, mother, policymaker, healthcare worker), context of stigmatizing language, narrative type, and themes (policy, incident, crisis, other). For the binary questions, “0” was assigned when an article did not contain the subject and “1” when the article did. The figure below illustrates the coding scheme. 


Coding is always subject to interpretation, but we addressed the possibility of coding bias in two ways. 1. The research team coded the articles by following a key which detailed the qualifications for each category. 2. A pair of coders redundantly coded the same set of articles, then their team leader reviewed any coding discrepancies with the coders to come to a consensus before the final determination was made.


Location of Uniformed Phrases in Articles

By examining where within each article uninformed phrases like “addicted baby” and “heroin baby” were used, it became clear that “clickbait” headlines are an issue in neonatal abstinence media coverage. Of note, 14% of the articles contained a harmful phrase in the headline, but did not use any harmful phrases in the body. This could be explained by the theory that some media outlets may be using harmful phrases in their titles as eye-catching, inflammatory language to drive clicks to their articles. This could also be explained by the organization of many news organizations where different team members control different aspects of the story –– the author may write the article, but an editor may pen the title. The use of clickbait itself versus more corrective content implies that a shift away from clickbait could spark a redirection of the way we think about NAS. In all, clickbait headlines perpetuate the harmful and incorrective narrative about “addicted babies” and furthers issues of stigma.


For this graph, phrases used in either the body or the caption were coded under the body category. 

Uninformed versus Corrective Articles Over Time (Jan. 2015 - Jul. 2019)

Between 2015 and 2017, both articles containing uniformed narratives and facebook shares of these articles rose steadily over 2016 with a brief peak in 2017. Facebook shares and article publishing returned to the increased state seen in 2016, through 2018 and 2019.


Popular media misinformation on neonatal abstinence syndrome, 2015-2021


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