Hospitals are seeing a rise in newborns suffering withdrawal from prescription painkillers, and the problem continues to grow.
When you think of babies born addicted to drugs, you usually imagine so-called “crack babies,” with indigent moms nursing a nasty habit that involves back alleys and dirty syringes. But today’s addicted newborns are the product of moms you might never suspect of drug abuse. These babies are suffering prescription drug withdrawal, and they’re in good company.
One Knoxville, Tenn., hospital has been dealing with a dramatic increase in the number of newborns with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), which is the withdrawal process a newborn baby goes through after in-utero exposure to certain medications. Alarmingly, the number of babies born with NAS at Knoxville’s East Tennessee Children's Hospital doubled from 2010 to 2011.
Narcotics used during pregnancy pass through the placenta to the baby. Once the baby is born, he or she no longer has access to the drugs and will likely go through withdrawal. And experts know that opioids like the prescription painkiller oxycodone are the worst offenders for the babies suffering from NAS, at least at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital.
While the problem is an epidemic in Tennessee, other states and regions are not immune. And for those exposed, withdrawal is an almost forgone conclusion. In fact, between 55 and 94 percent of babies exposed to opioids prior to birth exhibit signs of withdrawal, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Withdrawal means these babies are easily agitated and cry constantly, and many cannot be near sound and light. Other symptoms can include a distinct, high-pitched cry, tightening of the muscles and seizures.
In Tennessee’s Knox County, they’ve seen the number of children in foster care increase by almost 50 percent over the last few years, due in large part to opiate abuse among pregnant women. Then add to that number the many relatives pitching in to raising drug-exposed infants, and you begin to get an idea of the problem’s true scope.
The epidemic is still in the early stages, so there is no national protocol on how to treat NAS. East Tennessee Children's Hospital has come up with its own methods. They created a wing of private rooms that is quieter, darker and easier to control, and they train volunteers as “cuddlers” who are on hand simply to hold and comfort the babies.
They also use medication, originally opting for methadone, then switching to morphine, which is given in small doses every three hours with feedings. Doses are gradually decreased to wean babies off the drugs. Since adopting the morphine protocol, the average hospital stay for these infants has decreased by several days, now averaging 24 days. These babies still face an increased risk for problems with learning and development throughout childhood, and behavior problems once they reach school age.
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