Special Needs: Adopting the Drug Exposed Newborn

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Prematurity Awareness Week 2013: How Do You Do It?

World Prematurity Day November 17In the United States, 1 in 9 babies is born prematurely, 1 in 10 in Canada. Worldwide, over 15 million babies are born too soon each year. While not all multiples are born prematurely, a multiple birth increases the probability of an early delivery. Babies born prematurely, before 37 weeks gestation, are at a higher risk for health complications in infancy, some of which can have long-term effects. Full-term infants are not all free from their own health complications, of course.

In honor of November’s Prematurity Awareness Month, led by the March of Dimes, How Do You Do It? is focusing this week’s posts on The Moms’ experiences with premature deliveries, NICU stays, health complications, special needs, and how we’ve dealt with these complex issues.


Adopting from foster care means being open to the reality that the child you take into your home is likely to have been exposed to drugs in the womb. Many folks would love to adopt, but are afraid of the issues that they might face. The “scariest” reality for most is caring for a newborn who experienced drug exposure in utero. I have lived out that reality more than once, and two of those children are now my darlings for life! In fact, we are just emerging from year two of having functional multiples, who are also special needs kiddos. I’m here to tell you, it was SO worth it. It was beautiful! And, it isn’t as scary as you might think!

In the Beginning

Our journey started out with preparation. I found all the info I could get my hands on about drug exposure and its potential effects on newborns/infants/toddlers. The very best source of information that I have found is the Pediatric Interim Care Center, in Kent, Washington. They have a very helpful website, but, it is a lot of information to sift through. So, instead of just leaving you with the main link, I will include the two specific links that provided the most helpful information for our journey.

  • The first is the potential symptoms exhibited by newborns who have been exposed to drugs.
  • The second is the tips they provide on the care and handling of such a newborn. This is lifesaving information at 3am when baby is screaming, let me tell you! Absolutely essential!

I cannot say enough about this organization! They take phone calls from panicked foster parents, 24 hours a day and will walk you through what baby is exhibiting, and why, and how to address the need. Again, they’ve saved my bacon more than once!

Sensory Processing Disorder

The list of possible issues that any given child can develop as a result of drug exposure in utero is nearly endless. The many variations are just as daunting! I won’t try to cover all that info here. In my experience, the top issues that can interfere with a child’s ability to manage life well fall under the umbrella of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Our two kiddos were on opposite ends of the spectrum of SPD in many ways, so I have had two of the most common kinds of extremes under one roof.

Here is my very, very, very favorite video explaining SPD and its effect on the people who have it.

That is one brilliant child! He and children like himself (and my own kiddos) have opened my eyes to a broader view on life. There is value in every day. And every child has something to give that is unique and precious!  Take it one moment at a time, mining for the gold that is in each day. But I digress!

Isaiah’s Journey

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Isaiah boy’s first bath. He looks like any other newborn and in many ways he was very much like any other newborn. Yes, he smiled like that from day one!

Isaiah was born at 37 weeks with a very “small cup” for tactile stimulation, especially oral tactile stimulation. It overwhelms and confuses him. He also had a very poor suck reflex. He was easily overwhelmed by taste, scent and sound, to the point of completely shutting down and sleeping around the clock because of an odor that had assaulted his exquisitely sharp senses. Therapists refer to his issues as sensory defensiveness. This translated into feeding difficulties.

I was horrified to realize that the nurses at the hospital are not trained specifically in how to handle newborns who are drug exposed. So, the nurse had been just holding him on his side and letting formula dribble into his mouth. She did not understand what he needed to have any hope of coordinating his movements and eating successfully! We initially fought against failure to thrive. And Isaiah was put on the same formula created for preemies. He was simply burning too many calories in his efforts to eat! Isaiah required feeding every hour to an hour and a half, around the clock, for the first several weeks of his life. And, he had trouble keeping the food in his system for any length of time. At one month of age, he had just gained back up to his birth weight.

He also exhibited signs of “dyspraxia”, a general term covering all sorts of developmental coordination issues and very low muscle tone.  At ten months old, he still could not sit up reliably on his own. His nervous system was unable to keep signals straight. It was difficult for him to translate brain signals into muscle motions. Or to coordinate movements for things like chewing, swallowing, or catching himself if he began to fall. Those things were very real challenges. But, he is living proof that early intervention is everything to the special needs child. Today his nervous system has caught up in that area to the developmental level of a child who is older than himself! He still has issues with food. But, honestly, what two-year old doesn’t? More and more, the issues I see don’t look all that different from those of other kids of the same age.

Zoe’s Journey

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Zoe girl at roughly 2 months old. Those bright eyes lit up our days!

Zoe, on the other hand has a very “large cup” for tactile stimulation (especially oral). She will put anything and everything in her mouth, even at two!  As an infant and young toddler, she would chew on everything. All infants learn by mouthing objects in their world. Zoe simply could not get enough sensory input no matter how hard she tried. People would come into our home and ask where the puppy was! To this day, she sleeps in a crib that is the very cute equivalent of a padded room: she has special safe bumpers that go around each crib slat, rather than just lining the bed. They work great and keep her from chewing on the wooden crib slats. She is what they call a “sensory seeking” child, always striving to fill her very large bucket that requires sensory input and is never full.

Always… that is, until it comes to proprioception and vestibular movement. As an infant, she would stiffen her whole body up and push you away. I had never experienced anything like it with a newborn. I often heard people comment that she was hard to hold because they were afraid that her pushing would cause them to drop her. Now we understand what she was experiencing. The therapist called it gravitational insecurity.  Zoe has a very hard time judging where her body is in relation to everything else in her world. At that time, she found certain movements dizzying and incredibly unsettling.

Today, she will enjoy a mild amount of swinging, has started climbing more, and even goes down the slide at the park! All of that is thanks to Early Intervention.

Early Intervention Programs

drugexposedThe good news is that the Early Intervention programs in most areas are able to pick up on these issues from very, very young, and work with the child to develop the skills they need. So, the thing to keep in mind is that these issues do not have to be permanent. With some help their nervous systems can mature and learn to process the information needed to navigate their world. Zoe may never be a ballerina. But, she can now run and climb and play. She is developing new skills every day!

These issues are not unique to infants who are born with drug exposure. There are many children who live with SPD and other cognitive issues who are helped everyday by these same therapies.

The chances are that many who would consider adoption through foster care programs have already been exposed to kids with these same needs. For example, that child who seems very clumsy? Trips over their own feet? Perhaps bumps into walls more than the average kid? That could very well be a child with dyspraxia. It’s really not so different. Don’t let the labels scare you. These are children! While it is challenging, caring for a newborn who has special needs is not much different from caring for any newborn. You find out what they need, how to do it, and you provide for that need.

I hope that if you sense the call to adopt on your life, this information will encourage you to do so! Do not let fear of drug exposure stop you.

Today, looking at my darlings…I really don’t see anything but typical two year olds! As our doctor recently told us, if no one had known that they were drug exposed newborns (and thus immediately placed them and their development under a microscope from day one) our doctors would be reassuring us all along that they are well within the “range of normal” and to “just give it time”.

They are so very worth our time!

Jeanene and her husband Kelly are raising a “second set” of kids together. They have six children by birth between them, ages 17 to nearly 30 (his two daughters, her four sons) and are now parenting their boy/girl “functional” twins, Isaiah and Zoe. Isaiah was 4 months old when Zoe was born. Both kids came home as newborns in 2011, and were adopted from foster care on National Adoption Day, November 17, 2012! She shares the perspective of raising multiples through adoption. She also speaks from the position of raising kids as “older parents,” something that Jeanene and her hubby have found is becoming a more and more common experience. Jeanene is a passionate landscape, wedding, and portrait photographer, but has put the business side of photography on hold to focus on the special needs of her kiddos as a SAHM. Her days are now spent in a mixture of play, occupational therapy, and everyday life with two year olds running around. Think messy! When she has time, she enjoys casual photography, hiking, fly fishing, hunting, reading, writing and working researching the best ways to meet the needs of her sensory challenged kiddos! She blogs about foster parenting, adoption, and life with two toddlers at A Miraculous Mess.

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Jeanene

Jeanene (and her husband Kelly) are raising a “second set” of kids together. They have six children by birth between them, ages 17 to nearly 30 (his two daughters, her four sons) and are now parenting boy/girl “functional” twins, Isaiah and Zoe. Isaiah was 4 months old when Zoe was born. Both kids came home as newborns in 2011, and were adopted from foster care on National Adoption Day, November 17, 2012! She shares the perspective of raising multiples through adoption. She also speaks from the position of raising kids as "older parents," something that Jeanene and her hubby have found is becoming a more and more common experience. Jeanene is a passionate landscape, wedding, and portrait photographer, but has put the business side of photography on hold to focus on the special needs of her kiddos as a SAHM. Her days are now spent in a mixture of play, occupational therapy, and everyday life with two year olds running around. Think messy! When she has time, she enjoys casual photography, hiking, fly fishing, hunting, reading, writing and working researching the best ways to meet the needs of her sensory challenged kiddos! She blogs about foster parenting, adoption, and life with two toddlers at www.amiraculousmess.com.

3 thoughts on “Special Needs: Adopting the Drug Exposed Newborn”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I love how you described the “small cup” your son has, contrasted against your daughter’s “large cup”. That makes perfect sense.

    We’ve never sought EI services, but a number of my mommy friends have. I know that is an amazing organization, and that early attention to potential issues can have pretty miraculous results.

  2. I don’t know… I sometimes wonder if some adoptive parents of possible drug exposed babies may occasionally project that something is going to be “wrong” with their baby, and overly analyze their child’s every move, until they find something wrong. Almost like hypochondria on behalf of the baby.
    Putting all this focus on the fact that their child happened to trip and fall. They watch like a hawk for it to happen again. When it does, they “must have some spacial issue”… when every child trips sometimes.
    KWIM?

    1. I’m absolutely not trying to say that none of these kids do really have some genuine issues.
      But…
      For example, as an adopted drug exposed baby myself…
      My parents were just convinced that I would have ADHD. They overly analyzed my every behavior, until they had themselves convinced I DID have ADHD.
      Well, I’m an adult now. I’ve seen many many experts and psychiatrists. I don’t have ADHD. Or anything else.
      But in my parents’ minds, I did… Because they were so intently watching for signs of it, they interpreted normal child behavior as symptoms of this problem that they were so sure I’d have.

      Maybe the child referenced by the author, that bumps into walls “more than they should”, is just not paying attention to where they’re going sometimes….?

      Just some food for thought.

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