Drug-addicted newborns on the rise

Doctors say across the nation more and more babies are being born addicted to drugs. Since 2007, the U.S. has seen a growing trend of opiate use. In the Southeast, doctors say illegal prescription drug use is on the rise.

Infants born to mothers that do drugs while pregnant are likely to suffer from neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS. NAS is a term for when babies withdrawal from addictive drugs. It makes the first months of life very difficult for a newborn.

Dr. Richard Whitehurst, who works in the NICU at the USA Children’s and Women’s Hospital says these babies can suffer from a variety of symptoms.

“If not controlled, it can include seizures, diarrhea, vomiting, lack of weight gain, just extreme irritability,” he said. “They are miserable essentially.”

NAS most commonly occurs when the mother uses addictive narcotics such as heroin or hydrocodone while pregnant. The problem that doctors run into with these mothers is that withdrawal can cause serious damage to the fetus. Doctors have to prescribe a drug called methadone to prevent the mothers from going into withdrawal. Methadone does not hurt the baby, but it does cause an addiction in the baby.

Shortly after birth, doctors wean the newborn off the addictive drug with small doses of morphine until eventually the baby’s symptoms going away.

The risks are different for other kinds of drugs.

If mothers use cocaine or methamphetamines, they can disrupt development and go into premature labor. In premature labor the umbilical cord detatches from the fetus, cutting off all oxygen and nutrients to the baby.

“It’s like cutting off the baby from oxygen supply and then the baby can become asphyxiated from lack of oxygen. It’s kind of like drowning,” said Dr. Whitehurst.

In these cases, the baby has to be delivered immediately or it will suffocate in the womb. Often times, if the baby makes it through delivery, he or she may suffer nuerological damage from being cut off from oxygen.

Dr. Whitehurst wants expecting mothers who may be addicted to drugs to know that their babies can live long and happy lives if given the proper care. He says ideally, the mothers should stop drug use before conceiving. He says even if that’s not the case, expecting mothers have to be honest with their doctors.
“I think the most important thing is for everyone to be honest with their doctor and please tell their doctor about all the medicines they’re taking because there is help out there.”

USA Children’s and Women’s hospital is doing a lot of things to help these newborn’s recover.  In their new children’s wing, they have several private rooms where mothers can be with their newborns without the noise and chaos around them.  It’s important the baby has a quiet and calm atmosphere. They’re also training more of their staff to handle these special cases.

Dr. Whitehurst says that pharmaceutical drugs help a lot in the withdrawal process. He says the most important thing, though, is mother to baby contact.

The hospital also works with the new mothers to educate them, get help for their addictions and provide support so the babies can have a good start to life.

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