Every Hour a Baby is Born Addicted to Opioids

Every hour, a baby is born addicted to opioids. Learn about the impact, treatment, and long-term effects of neonatal opioid withdrawal.

June 1, 2024

The Impact of Opioid Addiction on Newborns

The opioid epidemic has had a devastating impact on individuals and communities, including the most vulnerable members of society: newborn babies. Neonatal opioid withdrawal, also known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), occurs when a baby is born dependent on opioids due to their mother's drug use during pregnancy.

Frequency of Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal

The frequency of neonatal opioid withdrawal cases is alarming. Each year, the number of infants affected continues to rise. According to MedlinePlus, a baby suffering from opioid withdrawal is born approximately every 15 to 25 minutes. This translates to a significant number of newborns being impacted by this condition.

Causes and Symptoms of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) can occur when a pregnant woman takes drugs such as heroin or certain medications like codeine, oxycodone (Oxycontin), methadone, or buprenorphine. The fetus becomes dependent on these substances, and upon birth, experiences withdrawal symptoms as the drugs are no longer available.

The symptoms of NAS can vary in severity and may include irritability, excessive crying, tremors, poor feeding, sleep disturbances, and even seizures. These symptoms typically appear within the first few days after birth and can last for several weeks.

It is important to note that the number of cases of neonatal opioid withdrawal is challenging to quantify precisely due to various factors such as underreporting and differences in data collection methods. However, one study suggests that between 2 to 7 out of every 1,000 births result in a diagnosis of NAS, which equates to approximately one newborn diagnosed with NAS every 25 minutes in the United States.

Understanding the frequency and causes of neonatal opioid withdrawal is crucial in addressing this issue effectively. By raising awareness and implementing preventive measures, we can work towards reducing the incidence of NAS and providing better care for affected infants and their families.

Treatment and Care for Infants with NAS

When it comes to the treatment and care of infants with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), a multi-faceted approach is necessary. NAS occurs when a baby is born addicted to opioids due to maternal substance abuse during pregnancy. Let's explore the medical interventions for NAS and the duration along with the long-term effects of treatment.

Medical Interventions for NAS

Babies with NAS often require specialized medical care to manage their withdrawal symptoms. The treatment approach may involve the use of medications such as methadone or morphine to alleviate withdrawal symptoms. In severe cases, additional medicines like phenobarbital or clonidine may be added to the treatment regimen.

The medical interventions aim to gradually wean the baby off the opioids and minimize the discomfort caused by withdrawal symptoms. The dosage and duration of medication are determined based on the severity of the symptoms and the individual needs of the baby. The medical team closely monitors the baby's progress and adjusts the treatment plan accordingly.

Duration and Long-term Effects of Treatment

The duration of NAS treatment can vary depending on the severity of the baby's withdrawal symptoms. On average, treatment can last from 1 week to 6 months. However, it's important to note that even after the treatment period, babies may require ongoing care and support for weeks or months as they continue to recover and develop.

During treatment, babies with NAS may experience fussy and irritable behavior, making it challenging for parents and caregivers to soothe them. Specific care techniques, such as swaddling, gentle rocking, and minimizing environmental stimuli, can be employed to help calm the baby [3].

While most babies with NAS receive treatment in the hospital after birth, the majority show improvement within a few days or weeks. However, it's important to recognize that the effects of NAS and its treatment can have long-term implications. Some babies may experience developmental delays or behavioral challenges that require further support and intervention.

The treatment and care for infants with NAS involve a collaborative effort among healthcare professionals, including neonatologists, nurses, social workers, and developmental specialists. The goal is to provide comprehensive care to address the immediate medical needs and long-term well-being of these vulnerable infants.

By implementing appropriate medical interventions and providing ongoing support, it is possible to mitigate the effects of NAS and promote the healthy growth and development of these babies.

Research and Studies on Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal

To address the growing concern over neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS), extensive research and studies are being conducted to better understand the condition and provide effective care for affected infants. Two notable efforts in this field are the ACT NOW program and longitudinal studies on opioid-exposed babies.

ACT NOW Program and its Objectives

The ACT NOW program, as described by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), aims to assess, treat, and follow infants with NOWS to provide the best possible care for these vulnerable individuals [4]. The program focuses on understanding the ways in which babies with NOWS are evaluated, treated, and monitored over the long term.

One key component of the ACT NOW program is the ACT NOW Longitudinal Study. This study plans to enroll a minimum of 200 babies born to mothers who used opioids during pregnancy, as well as 100 babies not exposed to opioids as a comparison group. By following these infants until at least age 2, researchers aim to analyze the long-term effects of opioid exposure and develop strategies for optimal care.

Longitudinal Studies on Opioid-Exposed Babies

Longitudinal studies play a crucial role in understanding the impact of opioid exposure on infants. These studies follow individuals over an extended period, enabling researchers to track their developmental progress and identify potential challenges.

In the United States, the incidence rate of NOWS increased significantly from 2000 to 2012, with approximately one NOWS infant born every 25 minutes by 2012. This rise in incidence prompted the need for comprehensive longitudinal studies to shed light on the short-term and long-term effects of opioid exposure on infants.

These studies aim to examine the developmental outcomes, cognitive function, behavioral patterns, and potential challenges faced by infants exposed to opioids in utero. By comparing them to a control group of non-exposed infants, researchers can better understand the unique impacts of opioid exposure on early childhood development.

By conducting research and longitudinal studies, scientists and healthcare professionals strive to enhance our understanding of NOWS, identify effective treatments, and develop strategies to support infants exposed to opioids. These efforts are crucial for improving the care and outcomes of these vulnerable newborns.

Economic and Healthcare Burden of NAS

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) poses not only a significant healthcare burden but also an immense economic impact. Infants with NAS often require extensive medical care and ongoing support services, leading to substantial hospital costs and the need for social services or foster care placement.

Hospital Costs and Care Requirements

Infants with NAS often require longer and more complex hospital stays compared to their counterparts without NAS. These infants are more likely to be admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), where they receive specialized care and treatment. On average, infants with NAS spend approximately 17-23 days in the NICU, incurring significant costs ranging from $66,700 to $93,000, depending on the need for pharmacological treatment.

In contrast, the average hospital stay for a full-term infant is only 2 days, with an associated cost of $3,500. The increased length of hospitalization and the need for specialized care contribute to the higher costs associated with NAS treatment.

Social Services and Foster Care Placement

Beyond the immediate healthcare costs, infants with NAS often require ongoing social services or foster care placement. These additional support services are necessary to address the complex needs of these infants and provide the necessary care and resources for their well-being. The involvement of social services and foster care can further add to the economic burden associated with NAS.

The rising prevalence of opioid use during pregnancy has led to a sharp increase in the incidence of NAS. In 2013 alone, there were 6.0 cases of NAS per 1,000 hospital births, resulting in an estimated $1.5 billion in annual hospital charges. This highlights the significant economic impact of NAS on healthcare systems and society as a whole.

The economic and healthcare burden of NAS necessitates comprehensive strategies to address opioid addiction in pregnant individuals. By focusing on prevention, early intervention, and access to treatment, it is possible to reduce the incidence of NAS, alleviate the strain on healthcare resources, and provide better support for affected infants and families.

It is crucial to understand the economic implications of NAS to advocate for effective policies, allocate resources, and develop interventions that can mitigate the impact on both healthcare systems and the affected families.

Maternal Opioid Use and Infant Health

The impact of maternal opioid use on infant health is a significant concern, as it can have both short-term and long-term effects on the newborn. Understanding the risks associated with opioid exposure in utero and the potential effects on premature birth and development is crucial.

Risks of Opioid Exposure in Utero

Infants with prenatal opioid exposure are at an increased risk for certain adverse outcomes. These include premature birth, lower birth weight, and a smaller head circumference. The influence of maternal opioid or drug use on placental function and nutritional transport may contribute to these risks. Additionally, neonates with prenatal opioid exposure may experience growth issues after birth, likely due to withdrawal-induced hypermetabolic state, feeding difficulties, and gastrointestinal disturbances.

Ophthalmologic abnormalities are also a concern for infants with prenatal opioid exposure. These abnormalities may include strabismus, nystagmus, reduced visual acuity, impaired smooth pursuit, and delayed visual development. These effects could be a result of the direct neurotoxic effects of opioids, as well as other social and neurodevelopmental factors.

Effects on Premature Birth and Development

Opioid exposure during pregnancy has been associated with an increased risk of premature birth. Premature infants are born before 37 weeks of gestation and may face a range of health challenges. They may require specialized medical care and are at a higher risk for complications such as respiratory distress syndrome, infections, and developmental delays.

Furthermore, infants with prenatal opioid exposure may experience developmental issues. The influence of opioids on the developing brain and nervous system can lead to long-term effects on cognitive and behavioral development. Early intervention and appropriate support services are crucial for monitoring and addressing these developmental challenges.

It is important for healthcare professionals to identify and address maternal opioid use during pregnancy to minimize the risks to both the mother and the infant. Prenatal care providers should implement screening assessments, such as the Finnegan Scale, to diagnose neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) and establish treatment protocols using medications like methadone or morphine. By providing comprehensive care and support, healthcare providers can help mitigate the effects of opioid exposure in utero and improve outcomes for both mother and child.

Breastfeeding and NAS

Breastfeeding plays a significant role in the care and treatment of infants with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), a condition that occurs when babies are exposed to opioids in utero. Research has shown numerous benefits of breastfeeding for infants with NAS, including a reduction in the severity of withdrawal symptoms and improved outcomes compared to formula feeding.

Benefits of Breastfeeding for Infants with NAS

Breastfeeding has been associated with positive outcomes for both the mother and the infant in cases of prenatal opioid exposure. Research indicates that breastmilk analyses have shown low concentrations of opioids, such as buprenorphine and methadone, posing minimal risks to neonates [7]. Here are some key benefits of breastfeeding for infants with NAS:

  1. Less severe withdrawal symptoms: Breastfeeding has been linked to a reduction in the severity of withdrawal symptoms in infants with prenatal opioid exposure. The components present in breast milk, along with the bonding and comfort provided during breastfeeding, can help soothe and calm the infants.
  2. Reduced need for pharmacotherapy: Infants who are breastfed may require less pharmacological intervention to manage withdrawal symptoms compared to those who are formula-fed. The natural properties of breast milk and the comfort provided during breastfeeding can help alleviate some of the symptoms associated with NAS.
  3. Shorter hospital stays: Breastfeeding has been associated with shorter hospital stays for infants with prenatal opioid exposure. The beneficial properties of breast milk and the nurturing aspect of breastfeeding contribute to a faster recovery and improved overall health outcomes for these infants.

Impact on Severity of Withdrawal Symptoms

The use of additional substances alongside opioids, such as benzodiazepines, tobacco, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, gabapentin, marijuana, or cocaine, can increase the severity of NAS symptoms in infants exposed to maternal opioids. The use of psychotropic medications in combination with prescription opioids has been shown to double the severity of NAS compared to prescription opioids alone.

Breastfeeding has been found to mitigate the severity of withdrawal symptoms associated with NAS. The nurturing and soothing aspects of breastfeeding, along with the unique composition of breast milk, help in alleviating discomfort and promoting overall well-being in infants with prenatal opioid exposure. Additionally, the bonding experience during breastfeeding can provide emotional support to both the mother and the infant, aiding in their recovery.

It is important to note that each case of NAS is unique, and individual circumstances should be considered when deciding the most appropriate feeding method for infants with prenatal opioid exposure. Consulting with healthcare professionals experienced in managing NAS is crucial in determining the best course of action for each mother-infant dyad.

Breastfeeding offers numerous benefits for infants with NAS, including a reduction in the severity of withdrawal symptoms, a decreased need for pharmacotherapy, and shorter hospital stays. However, it is essential to consider the specific circumstances and consult with healthcare providers to ensure the best possible care for infants affected by prenatal opioid exposure.


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