One Virginia Tech researcher wants to spread awareness about the science of breastfeeding, particularly for pregnant women with opioid use disorder and their advocates. August is National Breastfeeding Month, which celebrates mothers and lactating parents and spreads awareness to support breastfeeding and human milk feeding.

Mothers should not breastfeed or express breast milk for their infants if they are using an illicit drug – such as non-prescription opioids, PCP (phencyclidine) or cocaine. But for those who have stopped using those substances and are on stable methadone or buprenorphine opioid use disorder therapy, breastfeeding should be encouraged, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“There is so much stigma and misinformation, even among medical professionals, around opioid use disorder that people who are pregnant often don’t get the help they need,” said Brittany Howell, an assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. Howell has studied the impact of opioid exposure during pregnancy and how it affects babies’ gut and brain development. She is available to answer such questions as:

  • How does stigma keep women from breastfeeding? Stigma and misinformation surrounding opioid use disorder can prevent people from getting the care they need. “We have heard a lot of horror stories about well-meaning but poorly informed friends or family members, and about women’s experience in clinics. Where there is limited access to health care, people seeking care for a pregnancy have no choice but to keep going to providers who they know have given them bad advice. The care is not always informed by science.”
  • How can society better support nursing mothers, particularly those who have the added challenge of a substance use disorder? “There are obstetricians who also have expertise as addiction specialists. We also know that babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome cry more, don’t eat well, and don’t sleep well. Some babies are fussier than others, but in this case we know why. Having a dedicated space for opioid exposed babies and nursing mothers who face the same struggles, and are there to support each other, can help. Having medical providers who understand their challenges and can offer support free from judgment makes a difference.”
  • How does opioid exposure affect infants? “The biggest consensus is that the environment is way more important than the exposure,” Howell says. When advocates can address the factors that contribute to illicit use, women have been successful in quitting those substances.

Howell is leading a team of Virginia Tech researchers seeking to fill a knowledge gap: How do early exposure to opioids and other factors influence babies’ brain, physical, and behavioral development? Their work is part of the nationwide HEALthy Brain and Child Development study, which involves several National Institutes of Health institutes and centers and is part of the Helping End Addiction Long-term Initiative. Researchers will follow 7,500 moms and their children across the United States to gather data on pregnancy, infant and child development, growth, and bio-specimens.

About Howell
Brittany Howell is an assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and the Virginia Tech Department of Human Development and Family Science. Her laboratory analyzes and compares breast milk composition, feeding practices, stress levels, fecal microbiology, social behavior, and brain imaging data to better understand maternal influence on infant neurodevelopment.

To secure an interview with Howell, contact Leigh Anne Kelley, communications director for the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, at or 540-526-2002.


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