The Effect of Prenatal Drug Exposure and Caregiving Context on Children’s Performance on a Task of Sustained Visual Attention

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Three groups of children from low-income, urban environments were examined to determine the effects of prenatal drug exposure (PDE) and caregiving environment on sustained visual attention (SVA) at 7 years of age.


Drug-exposed children remaining in maternal care (n = 43), drug-exposed children placed in nonmaternal care (n = 45), and community comparison (CC) children (n = 56) were administered a battery of neurocognitive tests, including the Conners’ Continuous Performance Test (CPT).


PDE children remaining in maternal care displayed more omission errors than CC children. PDE children in nonmaternal care had intermediate scores that did not differ significantly from PDE children in maternal care or CC children. There were no group differences with respect to commission errors or reaction time. CPT errors of omission and commission were significantly correlated with parent-reported attention problems and academic achievement scores.


PDE in the context of care provided by a maternal caregiver with persistent drug use patterns may contribute to problems in children’s SVA at school-age. As parental drug abuse can interfere with the provision of early care, children raised in a drug-using context may be highly vulnerable to problems with self-regulation, including sustained attention. SVA problems may contribute to subsequent academic and behavioral problems as demands for concentration and sustained effort increase throughout childhood. Children who have been prenatally exposed to drugs or raised in a drug-using household may benefit from early intervention services to avoid problems in SVA that may interfere with subsequent neurocognitive functioning and academic performance.

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