Crack baby blues

I’ve just noticed a smattering of articles that have tackled the idea of the ‘crack baby’ which became popular during the worrying emergence of crack cocaine during the late 80s. It turns out that babies exposed to crack in the womb weren’t necessarily massively brain damaged tragedies as the stereotype had it, but the concept has remained with us.

This is despite the fact that we have solid research to show that while those exposed to cocaine in utero do show some differences from other kids, the effects are undesirable but actually relatively small.

This is from The New York Times last year:

Cocaine slows fetal growth, and exposed infants tend to be born smaller than unexposed ones, with smaller heads. But as these children grow, brain and body size catch up.

At a scientific conference in November, Dr. Lester presented an analysis of a pool of studies of 14 groups of cocaine-exposed children – 4,419 in all, ranging in age from 4 to 13. The analysis failed to show a statistically significant effect on I.Q. or language development. In the largest of the studies, I.Q. scores of exposed children averaged about 4 points lower at age 7 than those of unexposed children.

In tests that measure specific brain functions, there is evidence that cocaine-exposed children are more likely than others to have difficulty with tasks that require visual attention and “executive function”, the brain’s ability to set priorities and pay selective attention, enabling the child to focus on the task at hand.

Cocaine exposure may also increase the frequency of defiant behavior and poor conduct, according to Dr. Lester’s analysis. There is also some evidence that boys may be more vulnerable than girls to behavior problems.

But experts say these findings are quite subtle and hard to generalize. “Just because it is statistically significant doesn’t mean that it is a huge public health impact,” said Dr. Harolyn M. Belcher, a neurodevelopmental pediatrician who is director of research at the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Family Center in Baltimore.

A piece from City Limits Monthly tracked how the myth arose. It’s probably the best account I’ve read of the cultural currents that promoted the concept to front page news and keep it afloat even today.

And just last month The Washington Post talked to some families of kids labelled as ‘crack babies’ now that they have grown up into adults finding that, well, many have done alright.

Link to NYT on ‘The Epidemic That Wasn’t’.
Link to great City Limits analysis (via @maiasz)
Link to Washington Post piece (via @sunshinyday)

One thought on “Crack baby blues”

  1. “Difficulty with tasks that require visual attention and ‘executive function’, defiant behavior, and poor conduct” sound like traits that might correlate with crack use and might be partially heritable. Any idea what fraction of these effects is caused by genes?

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