Opiate Addiction and Newborns

We write often about the epidemic of opiate abuse throughout our country. The mass addiction, broken families, the death toll rising.

But one key group of victims that has seemingly gone by the wayside until now: babies, those unfortunate infants born to mothers who are opiate addicted and therefore, are brought into this world with a drug dependence of their own. This is referred to as Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.

Obviously, the human toll is unfathomable, but so is the financial toll, with the cost far exceeding $50,000 to treat each baby.According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, approximately 21,000 infants in the US were born exhibiting symptoms of opiate withdrawal in 2012. This statistic, the most recent available data, is a full four years old. We can only conclude that the numbers of opiate-involved births are dramatically higher in 2016.

In decades past, these babies were routinely taken away from their mothers at birth, since the mother was an obvious drug user. But that standard of care has changed. This is because current research suggests that these newborns do best when they can be held for hours at a time, preferably by their mothers.

Caring for the baby as well as the mother necessitates a huge paradigm shift in the attitudes of the medical staff regarding addiction. Instead of viewing addiction as a moral failure, providers need to understand that many of these women came from a lifetime of trauma.

In order to prove successful, alterations in the physical environment is also important. Not only must be these babies be held, but they need a peaceful environment. This is rarely the case in busy ICUs. Therefore, some hospitals are designating quiet areas away from the hustle and bustle for moms and their babies. The hope is that these changes will shorten recovery times for the children and decrease the amount of morphine a baby needs to ease withdrawal.

The truth is, addiction will always be an unfortunate aspect of the human landscape, just as babies will continue to be born to addicted mothers. All of us, especially medical professionals, need to take judgment out of the equation in order to provide the best and most effective care to everyone involved.