Does Opioid Dependence Blunt Natural Parenting Instincts?

Teddy bear on ground below swingsetThe United States is in the midst of an opioid epidemic, and some unsettling scenes have unfolded showing children caught in the middle of their parents’ addiction. In some cases, parents have been observed driving under the influence of opioids with their children in the car or arrested purchasing elicit opioids while in the company of their children.

New research examines the possibility that opioid use may blunt someone’s parenting instincts, potentially to an extent that could put a child at risk.

Can Opioids Affect Parenting Instincts?

Researchers wanted to see if the natural inclination to care for and protect young children was still in place through an addiction to opioids. The brains of each of the 47 study participants were scanned before and after receiving treatment for opioid dependency. Researchers measured brain response to images of babies, and then compared them to the brain scans of 25 people who had not experienced an addiction to opioids.

Some of the images were manipulated to show babies with slightly enlarged eyes or rounder cheeks, which have been shown to further prompt protection instincts. Other images downplayed these features. Participants with dependence on opioids showed less brain response to the images, suggesting their natural parenting instincts may be impaired by the drug dependence.

However, their response levels returned to normal after opioid blocker naltrexone was administered. The study’s authors say this finding raises questions about the effect of opioids on other forms of social cognition and highlights the importance of treatment for opioid addiction.

How the Opioid Epidemic Affects Children

More than 130,000 babies are born in the U.S. each year with an addiction passed from their mother. The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System analyzed statistics from 29 states and found, on average, nearly 18% of child fatalities were related to a caregiver at risk for drug abuse. An estimated 9 million U.S. children were living with at least one parent who was dependent on alcohol or illicit drugs in 2009, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. In the years since, the opioid epidemic has only continued to worsen, broadly impacting people of varying ages, races, and socioeconomic levels.

In an extensive review, news agency Reuters identified 110 cases since 2010 in which mothers used opioids during pregnancy only to later lose their children to preventable deaths.

By examining the effects opioid addiction can have on brain activity, this study is among the first to study how both dependence and treatment can affect various aspects of social cognition. The findings suggest the neurocircuitry in the brain responsible for parental feelings of attachment to children is also greatly impacted by opioid dependence.

Because addiction is increasingly being viewed as a medical problem that requires treatment in a medical setting, the researchers highlight the importance of empathy for parents experiencing addiction. Erasing the stigma of addiction could lead to more people seeking treatment.


  1. Barry, R. (2016, September 8). Parents sentenced for killing infant with opioid-laced formula. Retrieved from
  2. De LaCruz, D. (2016, October 13). Opioids may interfere with parenting instincts, study finds. Retrieved from
  3. Wilson, D. (2015, December 7). The most vulnerable victims of America’s opioid epidemic. Retrieved from

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  • Connor


    October 25th, 2016 at 10:18 AM

    Well duh. I would venture to say that dependence on any chemical will dull your senses and in so many ways makes you a worse parent than you probably would be without that dependency.

  • Wilhemena


    October 26th, 2016 at 4:07 PM

    So I can’t imagine doing drugs as a mom much less while pregnant! Don’t they understand that they are risking not only their own lives but that of an unborn child? And who knows what kinds of defects the kids may end up with because of the exposure to this that they had while in utero.

  • Celeste


    October 27th, 2016 at 11:06 AM

    Seriously we have got to get a better handle on this crisis.

  • len


    October 29th, 2016 at 4:09 PM

    I continue to pray for the children of these families

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