Style Guidance home / Mental Health, Trauma, and Substance Use

neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS)

Last updated


When a pregnant person consumes drugs that affect their nervous system, some of the chemicals can be absorbed into the womb and affect the fetus. The baby can then become physically dependent on the drug. After the baby is born, they no longer have access to the drugs and can develop withdrawal symptoms such as fever or trembling.

NAS is typically associated with opioid use, but the baby could have also been exposed to drugs like alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, or marijuana. While prenatal drug exposure can cause complications such as premature birth or intellectual disabilities, NAS is used to describe the withdrawal symptoms specifically. When discussing this condition, terms like “addicted baby” position the child’s humanity as secondary to their condition. Phrases like “a baby with NAS” or “an infant exposed to opioids in the womb” are both more specific and more expansive as alternatives.

Infants born with NAS have been stigmatized for decades. In the 1980s and 1990s, national media painted prenatal crack use as an “epidemic” and depicted children with neonatal abstinence syndrome as future “burdens” on society. However, the science behind this scare had many methodological flaws, vastly overstating the prevalence and dangers of prenatal crack use (which turned out to be lower than prenatal alcohol use).

Since crack use was strongly associated with Black Americans, the “crack baby” narrative was used to limit the reproductive freedom of Black parents and justify economic disparities among racial minorities. Black parents who used cocaine were heavily stigmatized and faced criminal punishments. Racial disparities remain in how pregnant people are treated after testing positive on a drug screening. Although people of all races and socioeconomic statuses have similar rates of drug use and addiction, studies have shown Black women are more likely to be reported to Child Protective Services and have their newborn placed in someone else’s care. When researching or writing about NAS, keep an eye out for ableist rhetoric and racial biases.

Additional resources


A collection of drug withdrawal symptoms that occur after a child is born. It is caused by exposure to drugs in the womb. When researching or writing about NAS, keep an eye out for ableist rhetoric and racial biases.