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America’s Babies Fall Victim to the Opioid Epidemic

Babies born with opioid addictions

The number of babies born addicted to opioids in the U.S. continues to climb. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an infant suffering from opiate withdrawal happens every 25 minutes in the United States.

What is neonatal abstinence syndrome?

Maternal opioid use may result in the infant being born with a drug withdrawal condition known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). NAS is a term for the difficulties infants encounter when suffering from drug withdrawal. This syndrome develops when the mother uses opioids during her pregnancy and causes the infant to become dependent on the abused drug. When the drug is no longer available to the newborn, the central nervous system becomes overstimulated causing withdrawal symptoms including:

  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Sweating
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Irritability and crying
  • Sleep challenges
  • Feeding difficulties

Only a trained medical professional can diagnose NAS since the symptoms are similar to other conditions. Additionally, symptoms may vary depending on the drug the mother used, the last time the baby was exposed, and if the baby was born full-term or prematurely. Premature babies may have weaker symptoms and improve more quickly than babies born full-term.

What are the treatment options for NAS?

The medical approach used is dependent on an infant’s specific circumstances but may include:

  • The use of medications to manage withdrawal symptoms. Medicines that may be used include buprenorphine, methadone and morphine
  • Introducing high-caloric baby formula to combat the slow growth that NAS babies may have because of feeding problems
  • Administering IV liquids to help combat dehydration

Babies who receive treatment typically improve within a thirty-day period or sooner. While babies are receiving treatment for their NAS symptoms, there are best practices that will help soothe and keep them calm:

  • Swaddling the infant in a blanket
  • Keeping the baby in a quiet and dimly lit room
  • Breastfeeding
  • Practicing skin-on-skin treatment which is placing the baby wearing only a diaper against the mother’s bare chest

Is NAS preventable?

NAS is 100% preventable and begins with responsible opioid prescribing. Patients and physicians should consider the pros and cons of opioid use for chronic pain prior to the prescription being written and filled. Alternative non-opioid therapies for the management of chronic pain are available for pregnant women and those of reproductive age. When the treatment plan is recommended by the physician, it is the patient’s responsibility to understand the benefits as well as the risks before making a decision.