A hush fell over the audience of about 40 social workers, child-advocate volunteers and foster parents on Tuesday as they watched a film of a newborn struggling with the consequences of her mother's drug addiction.
The baby shook, emitting a shrill, tight cry as she clawed at her face. She held her body stiff. All are common symptoms of the syndrome caused by her mother's abuse of methamphetamines and other drugs.
"These kids are punished their entire lives for what was done to them," said Dr. Lynn Kinman.
The film was just one of the graphic explanations at the one-day seminar organized by Court Appointed Special Advocates of Carson City, in conjunction with Nevada Early Intervention Services.
The task force for the Fund for a Healthy Nevada, Soroptimist International and Carson City sponsored the event, in collaboration with Nevada Division of Child and Family Services and the Nevada Training Partnership.
As explained by Kinman, amphetamines cross the placenta and the barrier between the mother and enter the baby's bloodstream, then easily cross its blood/brain barrier to constrict blood flow and interfere with development.
Structural defects of the neural tube and forebrain occur when a woman uses drugs during her first trimester. The development of the brain's white matter is seriously affected during the second trimester, and by the third trimester, connections between the neurons of the brain are affected, said Kinman, medical director at Nevada Early Intervention Services in Reno.
Methamphetamines increase blood pressure and heart rate and cause blood vessels to constrict. The resultant poor placental blood flow means the fetus doesn't get sufficient oxygen. Maternal and fetal strokes, poor fetal growth, siezures and fluid damage to vital organs like the kidneys are common.
Basic functions like the babies' breathing patterns are affected, and they're more likely to die of sudden infant death syndrome, Kinman said.
Most drug-abusing mothers use a number of substances. Kinman said there's no way to determine which drugs or combination of drugs are the primary cause of problems.
Babies can and do get better with time and proper care, but the faulty connections between neurons will not re-establish themselves.
A number of neurological symptoms like jerking, tremors and feeding problems often subside in the first year. Long-term studies show the children have no significant differences in cognitive, psychomotor scores or communication skills when given proper care.
"I can't stress enough that the problems don't just come from prenatal exposure," said Jennifer Andrews, licensed marital and family therapist. "The proper postnatal care is critical.
"We can never take away the fact that the child was exposed prenatally to drugs," she said. "But if we can get that child into a good environment, we can make a difference."