OBJECTIVE: The purpose of this research was to assess the effects of breast milk on the severity and outcome of neonatal abstinence syndrome. METHODS: We conducted a retrospective chart review of 190 drug-dependent mother and infant pairs. Patients were categorized according to the predominant type of milk consumed by the infant on the fifth day of life (breast milk: n = 85 or formula: n = 105). The Finnegan's scoring system was used to monitor withdrawal, and medication was commenced if there were 2 scores of > or = 8. RESULTS: Mean Finnegan scores were significantly lower in the breast milk group during the first 9 days of life even after stratifying for prematurity and exposure to polydrug and methadone. Significantly fewer infants required withdrawal treatment in the breast milk group. The median time to withdrawal occurred considerably later in breast milk group. In a multivariate analysis controlled for exposure to drugs of high risk of neonatal abstinence syndrome, polydrug, and prematurity, breast milk group was associated with lower need for neonatal abstinence syndrome treatment. CONCLUSIONS: Breast milk intake is associated with reduced neonatal abstinence syndrome severity, delayed onset of neonatal abstinence syndrome, and decreased need for pharmacologic treatment, regardless of the gestation and the type of drug exposure.