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Subtle Learning Problems in Kids of Cocaine-Using Moms

Despite problems, these children do better than previously thought, study contends

FRIDAY, May 6, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Children whose mothers used cocaine during pregnancy experience problems with planning and problem solving when they reach school age, a new study finds.

However, most of these problems are subtle and these children do better in their first few years of life than was previously believed, the researchers added. The study involved about 300 children of 154 mothers who used cocaine throughout pregnancy.

"I think the early information we had was that these children might be irreversibly damaged -- that they would potentially have lots of problems in school, that they might have lots of behavior problems, that they might have problems thinking and learning," researcher Dr. Marylou Behnke, professor of pediatrics at the University of Florida, Gainesville, said in a prepared statement.

She and her colleagues found that prenatal cocaine exposure is associated with smaller head circumference at birth and "less optimal" home environments. This appears to have a mild impact on developmental outcome by the time the children are 3 years old, with effects persisting at ages 5 and 7.

"We have found that at age 3, the more cocaine the child was exposed to, the smaller the head circumference at birth, and the worse the developmental or cognitive outcomes," Behnke said.

She noted that head circumference at birth is an important measure because the head grows as the brain size increases.

"So cocaine is not directly affecting outcome, but it affects this intermediary measure that we're looking at that then goes on to affect outcome. We think that head circumference may be some sort of a marker for what is going on in the prenatal development," Behnke said.

"We have found in our developmental studies of our newborns that there were some subtle differences between the groups (children exposed to cocaine during pregnancy and children who weren't), not the kind of things that mom and dads would notice particularly, not the kinds of things that family members might suspect if they saw the baby," she said.

"As the children have started to get older, we have begun to see a few more subtle effects, so by the time they were at six months, we could see some effect of cocaine on their developmental processes," Behnke said. "But again, we're not talking about dramatic effects. And as they moved on to age 3, we began to see even more effects."

When the children reached ages 5 and 7, they were given more extensive neuropsychological and intelligence testing.

"Some kids just have trouble getting going, getting started and once they get going they do a little better. Others have trouble maintaining their attention and they respond to other cues and not what they're supposed to be targeting on and doing, or they only have simple strategies, not more complex ones," study co-author Fonda Davis Eyler, professor of pediatrics, said in a prepared statement.

The study appeared in the April online issue of the Journal of Pediatric Psychology.

More information

The March of Dimes has more about the effects of cocaine use during pregnancy.

SOURCE: University of Florida, news release, May 2005
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