Every 15 minutes a child in the United States is born addicted to opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
From 2010-2013, the number of babies with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), which is a group of conditions caused when a baby withdraws from certain drugs exposed to in the womb, more than doubled.
The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Huntsville hospital treats babies with severe health problems, including NAS.
Dr. Stephanie Isreal is a pediatrician at Huntsville Hospital. “It’s hard to see these little guys, you know. They often just really; you can tell they don’t feel good.”
In 2013, 345 babies were born with NAS, which is up from 170 in 2010. In those three years, a total of 1,000 children were born with an addiction.
An Alabama Department of Public Health study found the majority of pregnant women who were addicted do not have opioid prescription claims with Medicaid. Health officials also note the women are likely seeking opioids elsewhere.
Isreal says babies going through withdrawal have a variety of symptoms including pain, discomfort, and problems eating and sleeping. She also says that the 80-120 addicted babies born at Huntsville Hospital every year are much different from other babies in the NICU.
“They are term babies who are born at their due date. They’re big, they’re strong, they’re loud,” explains Isreal. “It’s not intensive care as you think about as we have with some of our premature babies. You don’t need ventilators, you don’t need some of the intensive care tool.”
For decades, doctors have treated these babies with opioids, but Huntsville Hospital is part of a growing national trend to treat the babies with what they call “Non-pharmacological care.”
Huntsville Hospital has a program called “Eat, Sleep, Console.” Part of the treatment is to keep the babies with their mothers when possible. However, not all mothers can stay with their babies – Huntsville Police arrested 34 of them in 2018.
To cope with that absence, there’s now a “cuddler program” where volunteers go to the NICU and console babies.
“A lot of these babies, that’s what they need,” says Isreal. “They need to be held and they want that attention. And our nurses are fabulous, but they are taking care of more than one baby. They can’t just hold the baby the entire time.”
Medical evidence suggests this helps the babies, but it’s a long road to recovery.
Home isn’t always with mom. Doctors contact state officials to alert them when children are born with addictions. Sometimes, the child may end up in state care until custody issues are resolved.
Wherever “home” is, the babies can face long-term challenges including developmental and speech delays.
It’s a terrible way to start, but where there’s life…there’s hope.