As our country’s problem with opioid abuse and addiction continues to fester, it has far-reaching effects, including consequences for those who are near and dear to the addict. Financial trouble, relationship issues, and loss of productivity are all associated with opioid addiction. So are lasting consequences related to the development and health of babies born to addicted mothers.

Risks of Substance Use During Pregnancy

Drug and alcohol use during pregnancy can result in many different side effects that present either during development and birth or sometimes later in the child’s life. Birth defects, brain damage, stillbirths, low-birth weight, respiratory failure, memory problems, attention deficit disorders, seizures, and behavior problems have all been linked to drug or alcohol use during pregnancy.

Babies born addicted to opioids go through withdrawal when the substance is stopped, just like adults do. These little victims face the discomfort, pain, and restlessness for the first few days and weeks after birth that are the result of opioid withdrawal. Called neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), this condition occurs among babies exposed in utero to legally prescribed painkillers, misused opioid medications, and heroin and fentanyl alike.

Signs of NAS:

  • Body Shakes
  • Seizures
  • Twitching
  • Excessive crying
  • Failure to gain weight
  • Breathing problems
  • Fever, sweating or blotchy skin
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Stuffy nose or sneezing

In 2015, nearly 2,200 infants were hospitalized for NAS, at a cost of over $133 million. Ohio has among the highest rates of opioid use and NAS in the United States. A new study, published in Advances in Neonatal Care, of the National Association of Neonatal Nurses, describes the coordination of resources necessary to effectively manage this devastating condition.

Based on interviews conducted with 18 Ohio healthcare providers, researchers determined 4 essential areas to improve care for these young patients:

  1. Prevention. The best solution and the only one that completely spares babies from NAS is prevention. In order to be effective, prevention must reach all communities, but particularly those at higher risk for opioid abuse. Preventing the misuse of opioids, of course, should be the ultimate goal. Prevention efforts should especially target those at risk due to poverty, lack of education, family history of addiction, and exposure to drugs. “Although there is an urgent need for prevention programming and drug treatment, current resources do not meet the demand,” researchers of the study write.
  2. Prenatal Care and Drug Treatment. Even with prevention campaigns in place, opioid addiction among pregnant women continues to be a problem right now. The next step toward protecting these infants is providing help and support to pregnant women who find themselves dealing with addiction. “Barriers in communication and a shortage of integrative prenatal programs to address opioid use in pregnancy often leave women confused and frustrated about a subsequent NAS diagnosis at the hospital,” researchers said. Addiction treatment is beneficial because it not only helps mothers reduce the risk of their baby suffering with NAS, but also puts in place education, resources, and support for mothers and families after the baby is born. Northland’s M.O.T.H.E.R. program is an example of a program which can help.
  3. Labor and Delivery. It is important for medical staff to be informed about the mother’s drug use so they can monitor the infant during and shortly after birth. Treatment for those who have been diagnosed with NAS includes supportive care and medication. Hospital staff plays a major role in caring for the baby and assisting the mother with non-judgmental support.
  4. Aftercare. Once an infant is finished withdrawing from opioids, they are not out of the woods yet. “Our current focus on the period of pregnancy alone is insufficient to address the complexity of NAS,” said researchers. Ongoing care must include monitoring the child’s development and growth, providing support to the mother, and ensuring a safe and healthy home environment.

Researchers encourage treatment centers, medical staff, and communities to make prevention and management of NAS a priority. They warn of the consequences of standing by and not doing anything for mothers who are addicted to opioids: “Unless we make a serious political commitment to create fair drug policy, adopt a more integrative approach to addressing NAS, and adequately support the initiatives that we know can work, NAS incidence will continue to rise and devastate communities,” researchers say.

Treatment programs like the one offered at The Ridge and at our partner organization, Northland, are so important because they offer a continuum of care and support for mothers and babies. Northland’s new maternal opiate treatment and healthy educational resources (M.O.T.H.E.R.) program combine effective substance abuse treatment with comprehensive education, counseling, and access to resources.

Read the full story here.