Skip to content

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS): A Need for Greater Awareness, Education, and Understanding Among Criminal Justice and Forensic Mental Health Professionals

Crying baby held by mother

Author: Jerrod Brown, Ph.D.

Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS)

Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) occurs in babies that experience prenatal exposure to opioids. The baby is simply exposed to opioids in the womb during the course of pregnancy. As a result, the infant is born already addicted to whatever substances the mother consumed during her pregnancy. These substances could be prescription (e.g., methadone and oxycodone) or illegal (e.g., heroin) in nature. When the baby no longer receives the drug after birth, withdrawal symptoms such as vomiting, seizures, sensory sensitivity, and loss of weight become apparent. This syndrome can have both short- and long-term developmental consequences. Concerns of NAS have increased with the opioid addiction crisis in the United States. In fact, research suggests somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of American pregnant women are prescribed opioids like OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin. This does not even account for instances where illegal drugs are consumed by pregnant women (Ailes et al., 2015). Fueled by the consumption of these drugs, NAS has become one of the largest public health problems in the United States. For example, cases of NAS skyrocketed by approximately 400 percent from 2000 to 2012 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). This leaves 3.9 out of every 1000 delivery admissions in the United States with NAS (Ko et al., 2017). As such, it is imperative for criminal justice and forensic mental health professionals to increase their awareness and understanding of NAS and its implications on these systems of care through comprehensive continuing education training programs.

Training Recommendations

Training programs should be designed for criminal justice and forensic mental health professionals to increase their awareness of NAS and prepare these professionals to address this public health crisis in the field. Specifically, training programs should define NAS, explore the developmental and behavioral health consequences of NAS, discuss screening and assessment options, and identify evidence-based treatments and interventions for the baby and mother. Training programs in this area should focus on the following key objectives:

  1. Define Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS)
  2. Develop a working knowledge of the developmental and behavioral health consequences of NAS across the lifespan
  3. Review the growing prevalence rates of NAS in the United States and the broader world
  4. Explore the growing opioid crisis and its origins along with government-led responses
  5. Identify and contrast different types of opioids
  6. Discuss screening and assessment options to improve the identification and diagnosis of NAS
  7. Learn about evidence-based pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic treatments and interventions for NAS
  8. Explore possible protective factors and prevention strategies
  9. Acquire a basic understanding of the existing empirical research on NAS
  10. Learn about the criminal justice and forensic implications of NAS
  11. Discuss current gaps in knowledge and highlight future directions for research on NAS

Author’s Biography:

Jerrod Brown, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor and Program Director for the Master of Arts degree in Human Services with an emphasis in Forensic Behavioral Health for Concordia University, St. Paul, Minnesota. Jerrod has also been employed with Pathways Counseling Center in St. Paul, Minnesota for the past fifteen years. Pathways provides programs and services benefiting individuals impacted by mental illness and addictions. Jerrod is also the founder and CEO of the American Institute for the Advancement of Forensic Studies (AIAFS), and the Editor-in-Chief of Forensic Scholars Today (FST) and the Journal of Special Populations (JSP). Jerrod has completed four separate master’s degree programs and holds graduate certificates in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Other Health Disabilities (OHD), and Traumatic-Brain Injuries (TBI). For a complete list of references used for this article, please email Jerrod at


  1. Ailes, E. C., Dawson, A. L., Lind, J. N., Gilboa, S. M., Frey, M. T., Broussard, C. S., & Honein, M. A. (2015). Opioid prescription claims among women of reproductive age–United States, 2008 2012. MMWR. Morbidity and mortality weekly report, 64(2), 37-41.
  2. Ko, J. Y., Wolicki, S., Barfield, W. D., Patrick, S. W., Broussard, C. S., Yonkers, K. A., … & Iskander, J. (2017). CDC grand Rounds: Public health strategies to prevent neonatal abstinence syndrome. MMWR. Morbidity and mortality weekly report, 66(9), 242-245.