Published on:
December 14th, 2012

Opiate addiction has become a growing epidemic in our country, affecting people from all walks of life. Many people are rendered powerless by drugs such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. This problem does not discriminate even for the smallest of victims. In the United States, more babies are being born with symptoms of opiate withdrawal than we have seen in the last decade.

According to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the incidence of newborns with NAS (neonatal abstinence syndrome) has tripled over the past ten years. Dr. Stephen Patrick of the University of Michigan told JAMA this statistic should serve as a reminder that this is a public health emergency that requires attention from multiple levels of government.

NAS refers to withdrawal symptoms experienced by newborns addicted to drugs including opiates. According to JAMA, one baby every hour now emerges from the womb jittery and shaking. Other withdrawal symptoms include fitful sleep, diarrhea, difficulty eating, irritability and overall fussiness. These babies often don’t sleep well and need to be in a dark, quiet and calm environment to help soothe them. They also have a very distinct cry and need to be held and swaddled often. Often these infants are born with low birth weights and respiratory problems. Some infants may suffer from early seizures and may need medication.

Treatment With Medications Can Help Comfort And Soothe Babies

One of the worst things that can happen to an unborn baby is for the mother to abruptly quit opiates if she’s dependent upon them. Stopping drug use cold turkey while pregnant will present a greater risk of early labor or loss of the baby. It’s also more likely the mother will relapse and possibly suffer opiate overdose.

Regardless of the severity of the dependence, the majority of these babies will suffer some form of opiate withdrawal. This can be more difficult and intense than other drugs and is especially challenging for a child. Experts say most babies don’t die during withdrawal but the biggest threat is seizures. The standard form of treatment for addicted babies is to start them out with morphine or methadone and gradually add drugs such as clonidine, phenobarbital and anti-seizure medications as needed. Proper treatment can help to soothe and stabilize babies so they can thrive.

To classify a newborn as an addict does a disservice to the baby. The term “addict” has a negative connotation and indicates some level of blame. Babies are simply born with a physical tolerance to a chemical they have to be carefully weaned from. They didn’t ask for this but fortunately, babies are resilient and they tend to bounce back quickly.

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