May 1, 2012

Babies born addicted to drugs due to their mothers’ use of illicit drugs during pregnancy is not new. However, an increasing epidemic of babies addicted to prescription medications, especially narcotics such as oxycodone, is particularly alarming.

Many such newborns will be born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (“NAS”), which is the withdrawal process they go through once they are born as a result of no longer being exposed to the drugs their mothers used during pregnancy (narcotic medications such as oxycodone pass through the placental barrier during pregnancy). In 2009, more than 13,000 newborns in the U.S. were born with NAS, a three-fold increase since 2000 (opiate use by pregnant mothers increased five-fold during the same period).

How many babies exposed to opioids during pregnancy go through withdrawal symptoms once they are born? Between 55% and 94%, according to official statistics.

Many NAS babies share common symptoms:  they are easily agitated, cry constantly (many have a distinct, high-pitched cry), they cannot be around sound or light, and they may have muscle tightening and seizures.

Tennessee’s Recent Experience With NAS Newborns

Tennessee ranks among the U.S. states with the greatest overuse of prescription drugs. About one-third of pregnant Tennessee women in state drug treatment programs are addicted to pain medications. In one particular Tennessee hospital, the number of NAS newborns doubled from 2010 to 2011. As a result, this same hospital responded by creating a new wing of private rooms in 2010 that are quieter and darker to help in the treatment of NAS babies.

The Tennessee hospital used to treat NAS babies in a manner similar to the treatment of older addicts — methadone treatment was used to stabilize the newborns who were then discharged to outpatient treatment. Due to safety and effectiveness concerns with the methadone treatment protocol for newborns, the hospital switched to morphine in small doses given every three hours during feeding that is gradually reduced over the following weeks to wean the babies off of the drugs. This newer treatment protocol has reduced the average hospital stay for NAS babies by several days, which now averages 24 days.

And it is not just at the time of birth and for the weeks following birth that NAS babies are at risk. Studies have shown that NAS babies are at an increased risk for learning problems and developmental problems throughout childhood and for behavioral problems as they reach school age.


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