UF Researcher: Mothers Who Use Cocaine In Pregnancy Still Love Babies
GAINESVILLE — Cocaine abuse does not necessarily affect motherly love, according to a University of Florida study that finds mothers who use the drug during pregnancy care for their babies just as much as moms who abstained.
The maternal affection shared by drug users and abstainers is a new consideration for authorities who take children from mothers because they believe cocaine makes them unfit parents, said Tina Smith, a UF education professor who specializes in school psychology and did the study.
“Many states punish women who used drugs in this manner based on the implicit assumption that women who use drugs during pregnancy are bad mothers,” Smith said. “In Florida, babies who have been exposed to drugs in the womb are often taken away from their mothers. Although obviously there are aspects of drug addiction that may necessitate removal of the child, at least for mothers in this study, lack of affection for the child was not one of those factors.”
Smith found no difference in mothers’ attitudes toward their infants when comparing 65 6-month-old babies exposed to cocaine prenatally with 57 unexposed babies.
Since women of childbearing age make up the state’s fastest growing group of cocaine addicts, understanding how these mothers relate to their children becomes very important in terms of helping high-risk families, she said.
“There’s an assumption by the general public that mothers who use drugs while they’re pregnant must not love their child,” Smith said. “But we found that these mothers were overwhelmingly positive about their babies, even when describing what would be very difficult babies to care for.”
Unlike most of the cocaine-related research to date, which focuses on differences in neurological development of cocaine-exposed babies, Smith’s research, done between 1992 and 1994, focuses on how the addicted mothers feel about their children.
Mothers’ attitudes about their babies are critical because research suggests that mothers’ perceptions can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, Smith said. “If mothers think their children are winners, the children often succeed; whereas if mothers consider them losers, they are likely to fail,” she said.
In research at a North Carolina clinic, Smith and Rebecca Pretzel, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, compared babies exposed to cocaine prenatally with those who had not. They found no differences in the babies’ ability to do things, such as reach for toys, develop language and show other signs of cognitive development.
However, they did find that cocaine-exposed babies were more irritable and difficult to manage than the other babies, Smith said. “For example, mothers reported that they were more likely to cry during diapering and dressing,” she said. “But these are very subtle and minor problems in the big scheme of things.”
Even though cocaine-exposed babies were more difficult to care for, the mothers’ drug use had no bearing on how they felt about their babies; they were just as positive as non-drug-using mothers about their babies, she said.
The same held true regardless of whether the mothers were light or heavy cocaine users, Smith found in a second study that measured mothers’ attitudes about their babies two and six months after giving birth. If mothers were positive about their babies at two weeks, they continued to be positive about them at six months, said Smith, who studied 30 cocaine-exposed and 30 unexposed babies in the latter study.
Tom Barnes, management review specialist with the Florida Department of Children and Families, said the research confirms his observations in all but the most extreme cases.
“The ability for a mother to form a bond with her infant is very natural and substance abuse — cocaine in particular — cannot eliminate that bond,” he said “But the addiction can overwhelm the natural instincts of keeping a child safe and secure and providing nurturing. When that addiction is overwhelming the person’s life, she doesn’t care about her children, her family members, her job, having a place to live, getting AIDS from prostitution or about anything except the need to have the drug.”
- Cathy Keen
- Tina Smith