The Untold Story: Number of Drug-dependent Newborns Rise in Harford County


UMUCH Logo October 2015


While the news of rising heroin use and overdoses in Harford County dominates the headlines, the untold story is of babies born to addicted mothers. Thirty percent of 2014 admissions to the Special Care Nursery at University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health were for babies with exposure to drugs, according to data provided by the medical center’s pediatric hospitalist program.


This number correlates to recently announced statistics in Harford County about the number of newborn babies exposed to maternal drugs and alcohol.


While the rate of Harford County newborns exposed to maternal drugs and alcohol decreased from 2013-14, the number is still significantly higher than the statewide average, according to data provided by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Harford County Health Department.


In 2013, the number of newborns exposed to maternal drugs/alcohol in Harford County was 36.7 per 1,000 newborns. In 2014, that number was 28.6. While the drop is a positive sign, the number of drug-exposed newborns in Harford is significantly higher than across Maryland. The statewide rate is 20.4 per 1,000 newborns.


Over the past 14 years, there has been a 142 percent increase in Harford County newborns’ exposure to drugs/alcohol, the health department reported.


In 2014, 75 of the 250 babies in the Special Care Nursery at University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health were drug-dependent newborns. The average length of stay in the Special Care Nursery is 10.5 days, and some could be in as long as two months.


Dr. Marie Kanagie-McAleese, M.D., FAAP, director, Pediatric Hospitalist Program at UM Upper Chesapeake Health, said, “The majority of drug-affected newborns have been exposed to opiate medications, primarily prescription meds, such as percocet or oxycodone, methadone or buprenorphine (Subutex and Suboxone).”


“Withdrawal symptoms manifest in several ways, including high-pitched cry, difficulty sleeping, tremors, increased muscle tone, poor feeding, vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, etc.,” Dr. Kanagie- McAleese explained. “Untreated withdrawal symptoms in an infant can lead to seizures. Long-term effects of opiate exposure include an increased risk of ADHD and learning disorders.”


Reducing and preventing the number of drug-dependent newborns in Harford County is one of the focus areas for the Behavioral Health Work Group, part of the Local Health Improvement Coalition coordinated by the Harford County Health Department.


Chaired by Sharon Lipford, executive director of Healthy Harford, the work group aims to assist in developing treatment programs for pregnant women who are addicted, to promote their recovery and delivery of healthy, non-addicted babies. The work group is also concerned about several other behavioral health areas such as suicide prevention and developing a full recovery-focused community.


“Addicted babies are the untold story. There is great attention—rightfully so—given to adults who overdose on drugs and alcohol. However, babies born addicted to drugs and/or alcohol need to be of community concern, too, and that’s among the focus areas for the Behavioral Health Work Group in the near future,” Lipford said.


“Five years from now, babies who are born addicted will be going to kindergarten, and many may be unready to learn or could have learning disabilities because they were born addicted,” she added. “We need to help the mothers and the babies. It will take committed people to come together to tackle this complicated issue.”


Statistics shared by the Harford County Health Department indicate that 68 percent of Harford County resident women who deliver babies addicted to drugs are in their 20s. Twenty-eight percent are in their 30s. Three percent are under 20 and 1 percent are older than 40.


Other statistics include:


  • Eighty percent of the affected patients are caucasian; 9 percent are black and 3 percent are Hispanic.


  • Eighty-one percent of the affected patients are not married.


  • Ninety-three percent are not on Medicaid.


Kristan is an example of a young woman addicted to alcohol and drugs who gave birth to a drug-dependent newborn. She started drinking alcohol as a teen and then moved onto drugs. She became pregnant at 25 but couldn’t stop drinking and taking drugs. She knew it was wrong and wanted to stop, but didn’t know how or where to get help.


She went into labor two months early and gave birth to a girl who weighed 3 pounds and 7 ounces. The baby, born drug-dependent, was put into an incubator to stabilize her. She was moved into the NICU for two weeks because her lungs were not developed fully, and she had breathing issues. The newborn baby girl underwent a detoxification in the hospital by being given morphine to wean her off the drugs that were in her system at birth.


Kristan said the baby continued to experience withdrawal symptoms when she came home. Those symptoms included uncontrollable shaking and having her days/nights mixed up. She would sleep during the day and be up all night, similar to the pattern of living her mother experienced while the baby was in her womb.


The baby continued to experience breathing issues in addition to allergies, asthma and acid reflux disease. And her mother continued to use drugs and alcohol. However, nearly a year to the day of her daughter’s birth, Kristan finally began sobriety. During that time, her daughter was in foster care, and Kristan didn’t know if she would see her ever again.


Kristan went to drug court, served time in jail where she underwent a detoxification program and then entered the Homecoming Project, a halfway house for women in recovery.


“I knew I needed to get myself together to be the parent I wanted to be,” Kristan explained. “I couldn’t stop but wanted to stop.”


Kristan got her life back on track and has been taking care of her daughter for the past four years.


Providing greater awareness of the problem and better processes to help addicted mothers are among the keys to preventing babies born drug-dependent, explained Dr. Kanagie-McAleese. “These women love their babies, and we need greater community support and resources to help them with their addictions.”


For more information about the statistics, visit



About University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health

In December 2013, Upper Chesapeake Health became University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health. It consists of the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air and the University of Maryland Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace. The leading health care system and largest private employer in Harford County, UM Upper Chesapeake Health offers a broad range of health care services, technology and facilities to the residents of northeastern Maryland.  Visit for more information.

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