More Babies Being Born With Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

By May Wilkerson 08/10/15

The U.S. has seen a drastic rise in babies dependent on opioids.

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Incidences of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) are growing alarmingly more common as more and more Americans become dependent on prescription painkillers and heroin.

From 2009-2012, the rate of babies born dependent on opioids rose from 3.4 per 1,000 births, to 5.8 per 1,000 births, according to a new study from Vanderbilt University published in the Journal of Perinatology.

Leopoldo, who was born addicted to methadone, is one of an increasing number of infants feeling the painful effects of our country’s rising opioid crisis. His mother, Samantha Adams, was being treated for her heroin addiction with methadone, an opioid substitute, while she was pregnant. It’s painful for her to watch her 10-day-old son “going through what I’d been through,” Adams told USA Today earlier this month.

Experts see this trend continuing to rise, since opioid addiction has skyrocketed in the past decade. In 2012 alone, Americans collected more than 259 million painkiller prescriptions. Forty-six people in the country die each day from painkiller overdoses.

This steep rise in painkiller prescriptions includes patients who are pregnant, which drives up NAS rates, researchers say. A study by Stephen Patrick, assistant professor at Vanderbilt, found that 28% of pregnant Medicaid recipients in Tennessee had filled at least one opioid prescription.

From 2004 through 2013, admissions of opioid-addicted babies to US neonatal intensive care units nearly quadrupled, from seven to 27 babies per 1,000 admissions. The problem costs the U.S. nearly $1.5 billion a year in health care charges, according to researchers.

Rates of NAS are highest in the Midwest, in the region surrounding Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Kentucky. In Kentucky, hospitalizations for opioid-dependent newborns surged 48% from 955 in 2013 to 1,409 in 2014, a 50-fold rise since 2000, when there were only 28.

"The seemingly never-ending increase every year is so frustrating to see," says Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. "It's a horrible thing to spend the first days of your life in agony."

Opioid-dependent babies like Leopoldo often cry excessively and may suffer vomiting, diarrhea, issues with feeding, low-grade fevers, seizures, and even respiratory distress if they're born prematurely. They typically must be kept in a dark, quiet NICU, since they are highly sensitive to noise and light. Treatment includes a declining dose of morphine to ease withdrawal.

Mothers going cold turkey off opioids can put unborn babies at risk, which is why supervised treatment is essential. But there are huge deficiencies in drug treatment for pregnant women; of the 11,000 treatment facilities listed by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, less than 2,000 include services for pregnant women.

Says Stephen Patrick: "In many communities, women are left with very few options."

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.