LEXINGTON, Ky. - A recent study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the number of babies born in the U.S. going through opiate withdrawal has tripled over the past ten years. It follows a trend of skyrocketing prescription drug abuse.
At the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Kentucky Children’s Hospital in Lexington doctors and nurses treat some of the sickest or premature babies from across the region. A growing number of infants in the NICU are born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, a condition experienced in babies whose mothers were addicted to illegal or prescription drugs while pregnant.
“There’s something that pulls you about them,” says nurse Renee Broaddus. “You know they didn’t ask to be in this situation and it’s an uncomfortable place to be for them so the massage lets us relax these babies a little bit, give them more comfort, getting them used to touch.”
Broaddus is a member of a group at Kentucky Children’s Hospital specifically trained to deal with newborns going through drug withdrawal. The babies typically experience seizures, diarrhea, and cry excessively.
The mothers responsible for passing on prescription pain killers and other substances to their babies often feel tremendous guilt. Dr. Cletus Carvalho, a psychiatrist at the University of Kentucky, says his patients don’t want to be addicted and don’t want to harm their baby.
“Besides the addiction, these are also individuals who are also suffering from other psychiatric disorders: a lot of depression, a lot of anxiety. Childhood trauma is also fairly common in this population. Some of these patients have no support. They are sort of doing this by themselves.”
One of Carvalho’s patients is 28-year-old Amy. The native of Jackson, Kentucky started using drugs as a teenager.
“Lortabs and Percocets and then that wasn’t doing it for me anymore and I had to go to stronger things. I’ve experimented with all kinds of drugs but my drug of choice was Oxycontin and Percocet.”
For an otherwise healthy adult, detoxing from drugs can be extremely uncomfortable and difficult emotionally, but the challenge is even greater for pregnant women.
“The unborn child can have medical complications, obstetric complications from withdrawing, and it could lead to an abortion or fetal death,” says Carvalho.
Carvalho says a safer way for expectant mothers to clear their system of opiates is by taking addiction treatment drugs such as methadone, Suboxone, or Subutex.
Amy was already seeing Dr. Carvalho when she was faced with an unplanned pregnancy last year.
“I was scared. I felt that I was the one to blame because I was taking the medicine but I was worried that my child would be addicted to the Subutex when he was born.”
Amy gave birth in November to an 8 pound baby boy. He did start showing some withdrawal symptoms from the Subutex, so the family stayed in the NICU for about 10 days, but that is still much shorter than the average stay for newborns experiencing opiate withdrawal.
“It’s definitely better than the alternative of using the drugs and hurting him that way.”
Dr. Carvalho says reducing the number of neonatal abstinence syndrome babies starts with eliminating the stigma of pregnant women seeking help for their addiction.
And recovery doesn’t end once a substance is out of a patient’s system. Amy says she’s fortunate to have a strong network of support to help her and her baby, and she attends weekly NA meetings.