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Babies Born Withdrawing From Opioids:  What You Should Know About NAS

Almost every 15 minutes in the U.S. a baby is born withdrawing from opioids.  Let that fact sink in for a minute.  If you aren’t shocked yet, then consider this: between 2009 and 2014, the number of babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) increased 123 percent.  In 2009 the number of babies with NAS was 13,655.  The number rose to 30,445 in 2014. These babies withdrawing from opioids didn’t have a choice.  In essence, they became addicts before they ever had a chance to live and breathe one day outside the womb.

Exposure to drugs before birth causes infants to be born with NAS.  In most cases, the mother abused codeine, morphine, oxycodone, or heroin while pregnant.  The drug then travels through her blood to the placenta where it passes to the fetus through the umbilical cord. Other drugs that can cause NAS include antidepressants and benzodiazepines.

Effects of NAS Can Last a Lifetime

Some of the more immediate effects of NAS can include low birthweight (less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces), breathing or feeding problems, and seizures.  These babies usually have to remain in the hospital longer after birth than healthy babies.

The more lasting effects of NAS can include congenital disabilities that can change the shape or function or one or more of the baby’s body parts.  Most congenital disabilities cause overall health problems, physical development issues, and compromised functioning. Many of these children must attend specialized schools to get the amount of care and attention they require.

Babies Withdrawing from Opioids Suffer Intense Discomfort

Each baby responds differently to opioid withdrawal.  The symptoms they endure can begin right after birth or within a few days or weeks.  Some of the most common symptoms babies with NAS experience are:

  • Tremors, shakes, twitching, tight muscle tone
  • Convulsions, seizures
  • Excessive crying, fussiness
  • Poor feeding, poor sucking reflexes
  • Slow weight gain
  • Rapid breathing, stuffy nose, sneezing
  • Fever, sweats
  • Vomiting, diarrhea

Imagine coming into the world only to find this level of suffering right after you arrive?  It’s almost too much to comprehend. Fortunately, several treatment protocols are in place that can minimize the symptoms.

What Kind of Treatment is Available for NAS?

The following procedures are used to test babies for NAS:

  • NAS symptoms receive a score based on severity.  This score determines which treatment method the baby needs.
  • Testing the baby’s first bowel movement (meconium).
  • Testing of the baby’s urine.

Treatment for NAS includes the following:

  • Medication to treat or manage withdrawal symptoms.  This medication can include substances that are similar to the drug used by the mother.  Over time, as symptoms diminish, the dosages can be decreased accordingly. Some of the medications used in this treatment are morphine, buprenorphine, and methadone.
  • Intravenous fluids are given to keep a baby from becoming dehydrated from diarrhea or vomiting.  
  • High-Calorie baby formula is used to introduce extra calories to help the baby grow properly.  

On the positive side, most babies withdrawing from opioids who receive these treatments get better within five to thirty days.

During treatment for NAS, a baby also needs to be comforted and to feel nurtured.  Some of the things they enjoy include:

  • Being swaddled in a blanket.
  • Skin-to-skin contact (known as kangaroo care).
  • Dimly lit, quiet atmosphere.
  • Breastfeeding.

The best preventative for NAS is for women to quit using drugs before they get pregnant.

What to Do if You are Abusing Drugs and Become Pregnant

If you are abusing drugs, try to quit now before you become pregnant.  If you find out you are pregnant before you stop drugs, let your doctor know which drugs you are using. It’s vital that you get treatment before your baby becomes a victim of your drug abuse behaviors.  

If you would like information about what can be done for babies withdrawing from opioids, call our toll-free number today.

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