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Researcher studying children of mothers on methadone

Researcher studying children of mothers on methadone maintenance during pregnancy

June 11, 2014

Over the last 40 years, methadone has been the most commonly used method of treating pregnant women with an opiate addiction.

A University of Canterbury research study led by Dr Jacki Henderson will assess the developmental outcomes of children whose mothers were maintained on methadone during pregnancy.

``Despite its widespread and increasing use, there is a limited evidence of the effects of prenatal methadone exposure in infants, and even less evidence of later child health and brain development,’’ Dr Henderson says.

``Since 2002, the methadone in pregnancy study, which is conducted as part of the University of Canterbury’s Christchurch Child Development Research Group, have been assessing children at regular intervals from birth to age four and a half years led by former University of Canterbury Professor Lianne Woodward, now at Harvard University.

Last year Dr Henderson initiated the nine-year old follow-up assessment wave and with three postgraduate students conducting research, the study has begun. This follow-up assesses children’s attention capabilities, emotional and social functioning, cognitive and language capabilities and educational achievements.”

``This study will examine data of 91 babies born to mothers maintained on methadone during their pregnancy alongside a randomly identified community sample of 97 non-exposed methadone babies.

``We will look at examine the effects of exposure to methadone during pregnancy while also defining the children’s cognitive progress in the crucial middle school years.’’

Dr Henderson says one of the big challenges with the year-nine follow-up is locating the families following the earthquakes.

She says she has been supported by an outstanding and committed research team. Some of her team met the children soon after they were born, other members have returned to the group and watched their progress over the years.

The university’s Department of Psychology has provided a large amount of support for the study and for Dr Henderson’s research which has also received a Health Research Council Emerging Researcher Award of $146,243 funding.

Recent research indicates an estimated 10,000 New Zealanders are opiate-dependent. For these individuals, opioid substitution treatment using methadone is the treatment of choice and pregnant women are prioritised for this service. In Christchurch, typically 20 to 30 infants are born each year to women on the Christchurch methadone programme.

Understanding the family environments of infants born to mothers experiencing problems with drug dependence is vital to improving services. As families with significant daily challenges, their support needs are likely to extend beyond the neonatal period.

``Specialist ante-natal and neonatal teams at Christchurch Women’s Hospital work together with the Christchurch methadone programme to assist opiate-dependent women during pregnancy and for a short time after the births of their children,’’ Dr Henderson says.


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