I was fortunate enough to get to experience work in a NICU during my last clinical from January to early April. In my time there I saw hundreds of babies. Many of them extremely fragile micro-preemies, others robust full term babies with jaundice. And others, addicted to drugs. It’s impossible to rank which were the most heart wrenching or difficult to watch, but I would say that without a doubt, the tiny newborns withdrawing from drugs are some of the ones I will never be able to forget.
We were blessed at our NICU to not have too many of these babies pass through our doors, but in one hospital in Tennessee, they’ve seen an incredibly dramatic rise in the number of the babies in this situation, called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS.
NAS occurs when a mother routinely takes prescription drugs, especially narcotics, throughout pregnancy. Those drugs pass through her body and reach the baby, so that they too become addicted to drugs long before they ever have the choice to use them. When the baby is born, they go through withdrawals like anyone else addicted to drugs, only, as infants, they lack the ability to cope in ways that most adults can.
These babies end up extremely agitated, cannot handle much light or sound and tend to be very poor feeders. The traditional course of treatment has been a methadone wean since methadone mimics these drugs without the same “high,” but a physician in Tennessee has recently had success using morphine. This new protocol has reduced the inpatient stay for these babies, and frankly, the less time they have to go through the withdrawal process, the better.
To me, one of the most critical parts of slowing down this tragedy is improving education. Prevention is the best way to manage this beast and if we could better reach these women, who admittedly are often those who avoid prenatal care or who do not have the resources to pay for it, we may be able to help these babies avoid this painful experience. If we could better reach these women, if we had more programs to decrease dependence and better support, we may see these numbers fall.
And until then, we can just watch, wait and continue to work on programs to at least help these infants if we cannot reach their mothers before it’s too late. These babies deserve the best start they can get, and hopefully with continued publicity to this problem and continued research, they can get just that start.