The opioid epidemic that the United States is facing is clearly impacting people of all ages and backgrounds, as death tolls from overdoses continue to rise and more attention is being paid on how to help those who are addicted to these deadly substances. In the midst of all the chaos that swirls around this epidemic, however, thousands of newborn babies are also being adversely impacted by the abuse of opioids.
Known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), newborn babies whose mothers abused substances, including opioids, are being born addicted to these substances at a greater rate than ever before. Those babies who struggle with this condition face a series of negative symptoms upon being born including breathing problems, feeding issues, seizures, irritability, muscle spasms, diarrhea, vomiting, excessive crying, poor sleep patterns, fever, and more.
This issue, while occurring throughout the country, is becoming an increasingly prevalent problem throughout Pennsylvania, specifically in the western part of the state. According to the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, 2,691 newborns were hospitalized within the state in 2015 because of substance-related issues. This number made up for 2% of the infant hospitalizations that year. Between 2000 and 2015, the rates of babies being born addicted to substances like opioids increased by 250%.
What is being done to Help Opioid-Addicted Newborns?
Just because there are more newborns being born addicted to opioids does not mean that this has not been an issue in the past. Therefore, many neonatal intensive care units, otherwise referred to as the NICU, have been utilizing treatments for years. One of the most common treatments that is still provided to help babies born in this condition is the administration of morphine, which is slowly decreased as the baby weans off of the opioids he or she is addicted to. This is done in an effort to make the process of withdrawal more comfortable for the babies so that they do not struggle with the extreme symptoms that could otherwise develop. In addition, many NICUs across the country also utilize other practices, including swaddling opioid-addicted babies and encouraging the mothers to breastfeed.
Included in these efforts is a new wave of volunteers who come to NICUs where babies are born addicted to opioids to help them ease their withdrawal pain. Known as “cuddlers,” volunteers such as students and retired individuals will come in for a few hours and simply cuddle those babies who are withdrawing from opioids. While these cuddlers do not partake in changing diapers or feeding the babies, they do swaddle them tightly, rock them, sing to them, and provide other comfort measures to help soothe the shakiness, discomfort, and agitation the babies are experiencing.
Cuddlers throughout the state of Pennsylvania are trained prior to offering their services. This training includes a background screening to ensure that they have never participated in child abuse, hand-washing and infection control, and instructions on how to swaddle and hold the babies. From there, these volunteers show up for a portion of the day in an effort to make a difference in the lives of these babies.
Not only have the cuddlers been vital in helping provide priceless services to babies in need, but they have also made the lives of the nurses and doctors who care for them much easier. In many cases, nurses working in the NICU have numerous babies to care for during a shift. Taking the time to sit and rock a baby who is experiencing withdrawal from opioid addiction for an extensive amount of time is not always possible, which is why cuddlers are so important. They are not only helping divide the workload for those hard-working men and women in the NICU, but they are also able to provide even better care for newborns in need.
Issues with Addiction Going Forward
While both the recognition of this problem, paired with the implementation of volunteers like cuddlers, has made a major impact on helping babies struggling with this condition, there are still a number of issues that those in this situation are facing.
For example, the expense that caring for opioid-addicted newborns is putting on the state is massive. The average length of stay for a baby who is grappling with neonatal abstinence syndrome is 30 days in most cases. Specifically in Pennsylvania, babies born addicted to substances like opioids added nearly 30,000 hospital days in the year 2015, which cost Medicaid an additional $20.3 million. The cost of keeping up with a rising number of babies who suffer from this condition is placing a significant strain on the state in terms of economics and numbers.
It is also important to note that, while many babies who are addicted to opioids upon being born overcome their withdrawal and go on to live normal lives, there are babies who can develop physical and psychological issues as a result of the abuse of substances that their mothers exposed them to while in utero. This can lead to an increased need for mental health care as these children get older, which might not be possible if he or she was born into a low-income family. Also, many mothers who deliver their babies while addicted to opioids will have their newborn taken from them and possibly put into the state childcare system. This not only adds familial strain to those involved, but also an economic strain on the state.
While there is care available for those newborns who need it, it does not come without a price – whether it’s monetary, psychological, or emotional. We at Belmont Behavioral Hospital understand the need for effective treatment for all, including expectant mothers. Allow up to help you or a loved one defeat an addiction to opioids so that the future is brighter, healthier, and full of promise.