The Opioid Epidemic's Toll On Unborn Babies In Massachusetts

By Britni de la Cretaz 11/23/16

The rate of substance exposed infants is more than triple the average in one Massachusetts hospital.

The Opioid Epidemic's Toll On Unborn Babies In Massachusetts

The opioid epidemic isn’t just affecting women—it’s also taking a toll on their unborn babies.

In Massachusetts, the Eastern Middlesex Opioid Task Force dedicated their monthly meeting this month to discussing the issue, in a session that included legislators, doctors, and other professionals.

The Herald News reports that in 2013, the state saw an average of 17.5 substance exposed infants out of every 1,000 births, though at Melrose-Wakefield Hospital in Middlesex County that rate was more than triple the average at 59 per 1,000 births. 

The costs of drug use among pregnant people are financial, physical, and emotional, said Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan during the meeting. The average cost of a healthy delivery of a newborn, including a two-night stay, is about $4,000. But newborns affected by their mother’s addictions can require hospital stays of up to three weeks after birth, which puts costs anywhere from the mid-60s to $95,000, “and that in no way considers their future health and educational needs,” said Ryan.

Many of these infants may have neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), which “occurs when babies are born with a physical dependence on a drug because they received that drug in utero,” according to Rewire. That dependence can be a result of using illicit substances or using certain prescribed medication (including methadone or buprenorphine) to treat an opiate addiction.

In the United States, many babies with NAS are still treated in the NICU, which can increase costs (though it’s unclear which practices are used in Massachusetts). A 2013 study out of Dartmouth found that rooming-in cut costs of NAS babies’ stays by almost half, partly due to using fewer hospital services but also due to the fact that rooming NAS babies with their mothers leads to shorter stays and fewer NAS symptoms, too.

Ryan cited the Newborns Exposed to Substances, Support and Therapy (NESST) program as one of the support programs the county was working with to provide services and mentoring for mothers who may be using substances during their pregnancy.

According to Truthout, NESST provides case management, court advocacy, counseling, and mentoring from other mothers who have experience with using while pregnant and are now in recovery, offering what NESST mentoring mom Kimberly Byrnes described as “a light at the end of the tunnel.” Last year Byrnes told Truthout that she had seen three mothers regain custody of their children from the Department of Children and Families.

"This is really a prevention at its basic level," said Ryan. "This is where we say ‘Let’s think about, before these kids are even born, how to make their lives better.’" They’re hoping that it can start with education at the most basic levels, offering knowledge and support to expectant mothers.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
britni headshot.png

Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.