As a practicing neonatologist who routinely makes rounds at a local neonatal intensive care unit, I face the enormous challenge of treating infants born with symptoms of drug withdrawal. Caring for a newborn battling neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) is difficult, even for the most experienced physicians. These babies often look healthy when they are born, but within 72 hours begin to shake, cry inconsolably, and may have trouble feeding and digesting their food.
I have always felt that, while my specialty is treating newborns, I am caring for an entire family. This is especially true when it comes to treating NAS. Behind every baby born with withdrawal symptoms, there is a mother who needs ongoing support. I have seen the emotional strain NAS causes for mothers who are separated from their babies by medical equipment and are struggling to face what may feel like an uncertain future mothering a newborn and balancing recovery.
As the nation responds to the opioid crisis, we must account for everyone touched by this complex situation. This means leveraging interventions to serve mothers and their children at both the state and federal levels.
Opioid Use Disorder Exacts A High Toll On Women And Infants
Between 2015 and 2016, the rate of death from opioid overdoses increased nearly 20 percent among women – from 7.1 deaths per 100,000 to 8.5 per 100,000. For women who become mothers, misuse of these drugs can threaten the health and well-being of their babies. Since the late 1990s, opioid use disorder (OUD) during pregnancy has also increased. In fact, analysis of hospital discharge data found that the prevalence of OUD at delivery hospitalization more than quadrupled between 1999 and 2014. A recent article also found that the number of infants born with NAS increased from 1.5 cases per 1,000 hospital births in 2004 to 8.0 in 2014, a finding that aligns with the increasing prevalence of OUD among pregnant mothers. In the United States in 2015, one infant was born with NAS every 15 minutes.