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Study of Drug-Exposed Infants Finds Problems in Learning as Late as Age 3

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By Debra Viadero

ARLINGTON, VA.--At age 3, many infants born to cocaine users still have problems learning language and concentrating on simple tasks, early findings from an ongoing study suggest.

The results are the latest from what is thought to be the longest study to date tracking the progress of drug-exposed infants.

The project, which is being funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, follows 300 Chicago-area infants whose mothers used cocaine--and possibly other drugs--during pregnancy. The findings were discussed here last month during a national conference on the subject.

Several studies indicate that cocaine-exposed children are born smaller and weighing less than their drug-free peers. They also tend to have smaller head circumferences, a characteristic that often signals developmental disabilities.

The Chicago researchers have also found that cocaine-exposed newborn infants seem to have a harder time maintaining a "quiet, alert state'' during which they can begin to learn about their environment. Rather, they spend most of their early weeks continually crying or sleeping.

At age 2, many such toddlers seem to "catch up" with their drug-free peers in terms of height, weight, and cognitive development, according to Dan R. Griffith, a developmental psychologist who is participating in the study with the National Association for Perinatal Addiction Research and Education.

Despite their progress, Mr. Griffith said, the children still tended to score lower than drug-free toddlers on tests measuring their ability to concentrate, interact with others in groups, and cope with an unstructured environment.

The drug-exposed children, for example, could put one block at a time in a cup as easily as other children. But they could not perform the same task when researchers handed them several blocks at once.

The latest findings, which are based on a subsample of only 19 toddlers, indicate that many of the children remain easily distracted at age 3. Mr. Griffith said 37 percent of the children tested so far continue to be more easily distracted.

"The evidence is sketchy, but we are also seeing language problems with some regularity," he told the 250 educators and other professionals gathered last month for the conference sponsored by LRP Publications, which produces a newsletter on early-childhood issues.

Mr. Griffith said 42 percent of the babies were having problems with language development and 26 percent showed behavior problems.

The researchers plan to present statistics on 80 to 100 of the youngsters during NAPARE's annual conference, which will be held this December in Chicago.

The results will be compared with two control groups--one made up of drug-free 3-year-olds and the other composed of toddlers whose mothers used marijuana and alcohol during pregnancy.

Mr. Griffith suggested, however, that the findings should be interpreted with caution.

He noted that infants in the Chicago study may be better off than similar children in the general population because their mothers had been motivated enough to seek drug treatment.

The families also received medical care, parenting education, and, when needed, speech and physical therapy for the children.

Nationwide, an estimated 375,000 children each year are born exposed to cocaine. According to ex the largest group of these chilill soon be starting school, and some may require special services. (See Education Week, Oct. 25, 1989.)

Mr. Griffith and others at the conference urged educators not to shy away from drug-exposed children. They criticized accounts in the popular press and in professional journals portraying such children as "doomed."

"It's not like you have new creatures coming into your schools that have no techniques that are going to work for them," Mr. Griffith said. "You may have a lot of them, but we know what to do."

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