New UC research into children born to mothers on methadone

07 November 2019

Children born to mothers treated with methadone during pregnancy are experiencing educational challenges, according to a new paper by University of Canterbury (UC) Psychology researcher Dr Samantha Lee.

  • Dr Samantha Lee

    University of Canterbury Psychology researcher Dr Samantha Lee

Children born to mothers treated with methadone during pregnancy are experiencing educational challenges, according to a new paper by University of Canterbury (UC) Psychology researcher Dr Samantha Lee.

Dr Lee recently completed her PhD thesis in the School of Psychology, Speech and Hearing under the supervision of the study’s lead investigator, Dr Jacki Henderson with the study being funded by a Health Research Council Emerging Researcher Award. Dr Lee’s thesis research examined the educational achievement of children, born to mothers treated with methadone during pregnancy, when they were 9.5 years of age. These recent findings follow-on from an earlier paper that described the children’s school readiness were they were 4.5 years old. This initial research was established and led by Professor Lianne Woodward, who now heads UC’s School of Health Sciences.

Dr Lee’s research started with collecting data from a standardised reading and maths assessment completed at the School of Psychology, Speech and Hearings’ Developmental Child Research House, before sending a questionnaire to the group’s primary school teachers.

“The teachers responded without knowing the nature of the study, rating the children’s achievement in the classroom,” Dr Lee says.

Across the seven school curriculum areas rated by teachers, children from the methadone-exposed group performed below that of the non-exposed group, and had higher rates of educational delay.

Methadone exposure may not be the only factor associated with achievement differences identified within the study, which complicates research findings.

“While there are identifiable differences between the methadone-exposed and non-exposed groups of children in our study, we don’t know if the drug is the cause, or if it is factors related to the mother’s dependency on the drug.”

In addition to opioid dependency, the mothers are often raising their children with limited emotional and financial resources, which are also known to impact a child’s development, and would need to be “teased out” from any drug exposure effects in this research, Dr Lee says.

The benefits of this ongoing research will be far-reaching as, in addition to helping children succeed at school, it could benefit teachers and health professionals in supporting similarly affected children.

The Canterbury Medical Research Fund (CMRF) recently awarded a grant of $96,000 to support the next phase of the study, which will follow the group at adolescence.

The new paper from Dr Lee, Professor Woodward and Dr Henderson published by PLOS|ONE, can be viewed here: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0223685

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