Brazil’s crack babies causing concern

Many expectant mothers smoke crack cocaine even as they make their way to the hospital to give birth, doctors say. (Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images)

Many expectant mothers smoke crack cocaine even as they make their way to the hospital to give birth, doctors say. (Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images)

By Cristine Pires for Infosurhoy.com – 16/08/2010

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil – Artur has trouble sleeping.

Artur grows restless as he begins shaking and convulsing, becoming so uncontrollable he needs a sedative.

Artur can’t understand why he’s in such agony.

Artur is less than a month old – and his body craves crack.

Artur is among thousands of babies born to crack addicts in Brazil annually.

No official statistics of pregnant addicts are kept in the country, but the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) estimates the nation is home to more than 1.2 million crack addicts.

With no official data, alarming scenes at hospitals are drawing officials’ attention to a new public health crisis, as what was once rare has become routine.

At Presidente Vargas Hospital, a public-health institution in Porto Alegre, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul state, about 150 children born to addicted mothers are cared for by the Materno Infantil Hospital program.

At the Conceição Hospital Group (GHC) in Port Alegre, at least one crack baby is born every day.

“I can’t speak right now because I have another delivery to attend to...the mother’s a crack user,” says Dr. Paulo Sérgio da Silva Mário, GHC’s Neonatal Unit director, as he is about to give an exclusive interview to Infosurhoy.com.

It’s become common for Mario to deliver babies to mothers who arrive at the hospital very agitated and often high, as many smoke crack – one of the world’s most addictive drugs – on their way to the hospital.

And sometimes, mothers smoke crack while in labor on the street.

Newborns suffer the drug’s effects immediately.

“Crack can be found in the mother’s milk for up to 70 hours after her last use,” Mário says. “This is why we have to suspend that contact for 72 hours, which harms both the baby and the mother, since it delays the production of milk and hampers the child’s capacity to suckle.”

The infants may exhibit irritability, sweating, increased muscular tension, which stiffens the baby’s body and difficulties establishing a consistent sleeping pattern.

The medical community contends that Brazil needs to adopt programs designed especially for treating mothers who use drugs and children already requiring special care at birth, says Paulo de Argollo Mendes, president of Rio Grande do Sul’s Medical Union (SIMERS).

Doctors can’t predict the possible fallout from drug use during infancy or adolescence. They also can’t tell if early addiction will increase their chances of abusing drugs later in life.

Abandonment follows withdrawal

The treatment of children born to crack users often is followed by another complication: abandonment.

In many cases, crack addict mothers choose to give their babies up for adoption, says Maria do Carmo Fay, a social worker at Residential Shelter Nucleus (NAR), part of the Special Protection Foundation (FPE) run by the government of Rio Grande do Sul.

All of the children sent to NAR’s shelter homes in northern Porto Alegre were born to mothers who used crack.

NAR has sheltered 12 newborns, including Artur, in the past months, Fay says.

The new cases required efforts of the entire team of nurses, psychologists, physicians, social workers and supervisors.

“We took a course with a psychiatrist to learn how to help these young ones,” Fay says.

The first month is the most challenging – both for the newborns and the caregivers. Once past it, the infants overcome their withdrawal symptoms and start developing normally.

“To avoid these scenarios, the most important thing is to treat the mother,” Mendes says.

But a crack user requires at least 30 days of rehabilitation to break the addiction, a major step in a never-ending recovery process.

“A shorter period does not work, because it isn’t possible to overcome the physical dependency,” Mendes says.

But there aren’t enough hospital beds to keep up with the increasing demand of what Mendes calls a “crack pandemic.”

“We’re talking about a more serious surge than what we saw last year with the A flu, but we’re unable to open up new beds to treat these people,” Mendes says, referring to the inadequacy of psychiatric facilities for treatment.

SIMERS says the psychiatric support structure was dismantled after 1993, a consequence of the so-called psychiatric reform for psychiatric clinics and hospitals in Brazil.

But the measure ultimately targeted only public health services or private institutions that provide care through the Brazilian public health system (SUS).

SIMERS says treating the children implies treating the mothers.

But where?

The Ministry of Health said the psychiatric reform meant replacing the mental asylum model, which focused on hospital care treatment. The new model, however, offers individual attention for those suffering from mental problems and drug addiction.

But the substitution is gradual, according to the Ministry of Health.

From 2002 to June 2010, the number of Brazil’s Centers for Psycho-social Attention (CAPS) grew from 424 to 1,541.

The numbers don’t tell the entire story

SIMERS says the CAPS didn’t do away with the need of hospitalizations since the institutions work only during daytime hours and don’t have the physicians needed to keep up with the influx of patients.

The country also is lacking an adequate amount of facilities specialized in treating alcohol and drug abuse, which are crucial in combating crack, SIMERS says. The government has not been able to provide hospitals with enough resources to keep up with the rapidly growing number of patients, according to the Ministry of Health.

It says the process of reducing the number of beds in psychiatric clinics — there are now 35,426 compared with 52,962 in 2001— can be attributed to the closing of institutions that didn’t abide by state guidelines by offering low-quality services.

Mendes says this “adamant” opposition against psychiatric hospitals not only jeopardizes patients’ lives, including those of chemically dependent mothers and their children but also reveals an underlying prejudice.

“You can have a cardiology hospital. Brazil’s record in that area is world-class,” says Mendes. “But you cannot have a hospital to treat mental illness. Why?”

Investments in prevention reach US$235 million

The Ministry of Health’s main strategy in combating crack addictions is prevention.

The number of pre-natal exams under SUS increased by 125% from 2003 to 2009.

Making prenatal care more widely available is crucial to informing expectant mothers the damage they are doing to their babies by consuming drugs.

Women in need of help, especially those addicted to drugs or alcohol, are referred to CAPS for treatment.

The Ministry of Health’s treatment plan for drug users includes health professionals, but also officials from the justice system, human rights and social welfare. The ministry also is funding the building of 70 halfway houses to shelter at-risk mothers or those in a fragile mental state.

Local social service centers also provide specific types of assistance to the families of drug addicts.

The Ministry of Health has earmarked R$14.3 million (US$8 million) to create shelters for drug users — mostly children and adolescents — and already has implemented 14 projects for mobile clinics, manned by teams who visit the so-called “crack-lands” to offer help where users congregate to get high.

The Ministry of Health also expects to double the number of general hospital beds available for the chemically dependent by the end of the year.

The federal government expects to have invested R$410 million (US$235 million) to fund its Integrated Plan to Combat Crack and other drugs, expected to act on several fronts to prevent, fight and treat the pandemic.

Comments and ratings are closed for this article.


  • MARIA | 2014-06-12

    Hi, I have a family member who is 5 months pregnant at the moment, and using drugs. She is totally dependent on them and certainly needs medical attention. Is there any way for this baby to have a normal life? I plan on adopting the baby regardless of anything else, but I would like to know if there is some kind of detoxification process for this child.

  • Lourdes | 2013-12-22

    What are the statistics related to the topic: "Filhos da pandemia de crack crescem no Brasil" ("Children of the crack pandemic in Brazil grows") in 2013?

  • Nanda | 2013-09-21

    Hello! Folks, this is a really sad situation. I am very sad and concerned. My mother-in-law has been using crack since she was 19 years old. She used it while she was pregnant with my husband. He also used marijuana and cocaine for a while because he grew up in that environment, that example at home. But, thank God, after we got married, he stopped! Now, 4 kids later, and 10 years after my mother-in-law had her last child, she got pregnant again. Her addiction continues getting worse. I am really concerned because I've never been through this before. I didn't live with her the other times she got pregnant. I don't know what to do. I am afraid that the baby will be born with withdrawal, and then, I would have to take care of him/her. The other four children, including my husband, were taken care of by their grandmother, but she died. Now, who is going to take care of the baby? Guys, I have never seen anything as devastating as this drug. It destroys families and lives. I do not understand how people with so many stories, so many bad examples, still try this evil drug, ending up addicted and destroying their lives. It's horrible, scary. I am terrified of it. The world is very corrupt, but I always pray to God to help all addicts and to keep the children being born away from this evil drug! Smart people learn from their mistakes, and the wise learn from the mistakes of others. I wonder what I should do if this child is born with some kind of health problem :( Thank you!

  • Sueli Salvático da Silva | 2012-08-29

    I am a friend of a foster mother of six years old child. The (biological) mother was a user before, during and after pregnancy. She was arrested while pregnant and when under house arrest she gave birth in the seventh month while having an overdose. The child was born with the right side of her face paralyzed and over time this has been improving. She stayed with the mother until she was two months old and after the visit of the social worker she was sent to an institution for children who need to take medicine properly and wait adoption. When she was 1 year old she was adopted (by this friend of mine) at the time the foster father was 55 years old and the foster mother was 54. The family has no information if the child went through some detoxification treatment after birth. In the home they live they do not drink nor smoke, at grandma’s she found a can of beer and opened it, when the mother heard and ran to her. She had taken a sip and was amazingly satisfied. The child is very jittery, restless. Last week at the soccer classes a boy cursed her and her mother and gave her a punch in the leg, she doesn't usually defend herself, but had a diaper her own, so she put it around her own neck and tied it strongly. The coach had to save her. The other day she was hitting her own arm with the fork trying to harm herself, when asked the reason of this behavior she replied that it is because she has a great pain in her chest she believes would go away if she has another stronger pain. I would like to know where to look for specialist treatment so this child stops feeling the need of drugs. Maybe her body still needs drugs? Is there any treatment to get her out of this condition?

  • Regina Azzulini | 2012-07-15

    Do you have the address of the shelters so I can help somehow? thanks.

  • alma | 2012-05-07

    Hi I am desperate my daughter is 35 weeks along in her pregnancy and she is still smoking crack she was in treatment but now it's been about 3 weeks she went back to using yesterday she left home what can happen to the baby how can I help her I see her belly stopped growing HELP ME PLEASE on top of everything I have financial problems because on top of everything she sold from the house and she borrowed money using my name I live alone with her I WOULD BE GRATEFUL FOR ANYONE TO HELP ME I LIVE IN URUGUAY THANK YOU

    • manu | 2013-11-21

      If he was born nice and healthy nothing will happen to him. It’s your conscience that’s making you think like that since you’re guilty. And now that you’re not using you realize the damage you did, you could have lost your baby. Keep on like you are don’t use anymore, for your baby. I wish you all the best

  • mewin | 2012-03-28

    Can someone please give me advice. My daughter has been using drugs since she was 12 years old, more or less, now she's 21 and has a 2 year old baby and two abortions and now she's pregnant again and is at risk but she's three months along, she goes to bed with anyone in exchange for drugs and I'm going crazy, I don't want to take her to Hogares CREA because there are a lot of people who know us there, she won't listen to my advice or anything... Please, is there a doctor in this section who could tell me something thank you.

  • aline | 2011-12-28

    I have adopted a child whose biological mother was addicted to crack during her pregnancy. She is eight months old now, but her motions, teeth, size and weight do not correspond to her age, will she ever recover, how long does it take to detox, will she always be an addict?

  • cristina | 2011-12-24

    Unfortunately, my husband, an unwise but wonderful man, has become addicted to this trash. I’ve watched our world crumble, the sadness is overwhelming, but I still believe in the Creator who can change this story!!! Imagine with innocent children, I’ve cried a lot when I learned the effects of these drugs on those kids. God has a purpose for my life and I want to help, drugs have tried to take down my husband, but not me!!! I’m alive!!!

  • Fabia | 2011-11-17

    Hi. I’d like to ask a question. I’ve adopted a child, daughter of a crack-addicted mother, she was 9 months old then and now she is 4. She is a calm child, but has nightmares and hallucinations at night when she falls asleep. I’d like to know if this is due to the use of crack and what I can do to help her? Another question: when a child is born, how long does it take to detox? Thank you!!

  • TAMARA | 2011-10-13


  • Adriana Nascimento Santos | 2011-09-15

    I congratulate you for the report and would like to keep in touch and to acquire more information, I believe I’ve found a way to partially solve this problem but I need detailed information to complete a project that I intend to take to competent authorities, I thank you in advance if you could possibly send me those information. Adriana N. Santos 15/Sep/2011 São Paulo.

  • Sutra | 2011-08-17

    When facing the future of healthcare, we think ahead and look at changing demographics. Here in Canada, our healthcare system is facing acommodating our aging population. A very real concern for the future is how babies born in addiction will fare in adult life (crack, alcohol and other drugs). Brazil has the opportunity to be a world leader in addressing this issue. Thanks for making us aware of this. One day, I would like to do some work in an organization that cares for these children. -Sutra

  • Karina | 2010-12-26

    Hi, I found this report very good and would like to know more information about those mothers who abandon the newborns. I’d like to adopt one of them very much. Please send me something if you can, this is my e-mail. Thank you

  • Ana Faustino-RS | 2010-11-24

    Congratulations on the article published herein, I’m doing a research Project for my education course with the theme: how to save the children of crack addicted adults, since I believe there’s much debate on how to prevent or recover from such a devastating addiction, but what about saving the children of those who are addicted? How can we save them? HOPEFULLY I’LL FINISH MY PROJECT AND TO SOMEHOW HELP THOSE KIDS.

  • Elisabete Miranda | 2010-09-26

    Very good report, congratulations Cris.

  • Márcia Cristina Fabiano | 2010-09-05

    It's sad to know we're facing a scary reality. This causes so much commotion and leaves us not knowing what to do. Maybe it could be included in speeches performed at Social Services in Health Facilities a help program with guidance for volunteers to try to help crack users through a campaign to bring them closer to society so to help them accept some treatment for their addiction. We all know that the hardest part is to convince them to accept hospitalization. Let's pray to find a way to help.

  • Márcia Cristina Fabiano | 2010-09-05

    It's sad to know we're facing a scary reality. This causes so much commotion and leaves us not knowing what to do. Maybe it could be included in speeches performed at Social Services in Health Facilities a help program with guidance for volunteers to try to help crack users through a campaign to bring them closer to society so to help them accept some treatment for their addiction. We all know that the hardest part is to convince them to accept hospitalization. Let's pray to find a way to help.

  • Patrícia | 2010-08-19

    Excellent subject, excellent idea, surgical sensitivity. This is our childhood, and the future. What can be done to ensure assistance?

  • jandira feijo | 2010-08-17

    What a great report, Cris! I just loved it!

  • Zé Antonio | 2010-08-17

    Excellent report! I've been always curious about how crack would affect the childhood and adolescence of these babies, I didn't realize that there are still no records so to obtain such information from. I live In Curitiba [Brazil], very close to "Parolin" slum, a very busy crack selling point in the south of Brazil and I dwell very close to prostitution areas of female crack users: it's degrading. The addicted women have no notion of dignity no more and keep getting pregnant! They give birth and then just get pregnant right away. We need to find out HOW society can carry on an effective program to fight crack, and fast.

  • Sandra Dias | 2010-08-17

    Congratulations for the report, I believe that the more we know crack is a reality, all information is key and maybe it can prevent more and more people to join this huge group of unfortunate ones. I'm touched when I see cases such as that of the twin brothers that chained themselves crying for help, since when there's such a strong demonstration of will to stop using it and get some treatment, then it is indeed possible to do something.