Challenges in Treating Opioid Addicted Babies

It is estimated that one baby is born every hour in the United States addicted to opiate drugs, such as heroin, codeine, oxycodone and methadone. Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital Pediatric Unit sees the tiniest victims of this heartbreaking epidemic in our Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) Program.

When the birthing process brings an abrupt cessation of the opioid, the baby goes into withdrawal. Symptoms may include crying for hours due to pain and discomfort as their bodies adjust. They often are fussy and hard to calm.

The first step is to bring withdrawal symptoms under control. Good Shepherd’s NAS team focuses on non-pharmacological measures, such as therapy in a quiet, dark area and controlled sensory stimulation. These interventions improve auto regulation and the baby’s sleep/wake cycles. Consistent feeding times and lots of quiet human contact help to ease the difficult transition as the baby’s body adjusts. Babies exhibiting severe symptoms may need pharmacological intervention to ease the pain and discomfort of NAS. Some require hospitalization for weeks or months after birth.

Many hospital intensive care units and nurseries can be over stimulating for a baby going through withdrawal. The rehab environment at Good Shepherd greatly benefits NAS babies. Constant observation and evaluation using a specialized scoring system help to determine the child’s changing needs.

The problems associated with NAS can continue after discharge, as some of these children face long-term feeding, developmental and learning difficulties. They also are at high risk for child abuse, because they have difficulty self-settling in what is often a challenged family/ home situation. Good Shepherd’s NAS Program consists of doctors, pediatric specialized nurses, therapists, case managers and behavioral health counselors who are equipped to support the needs of these babies and their family members.

In addition to alleviating symptoms of withdrawal, Good Shepherd’s goals are to: ensure optimum nutrition; maintain a developmentally supportive environment; facilitate positive caregiver-infant interaction and bonding; and provide ongoing parental education and follow-up therapy.

Caring for addicted babies is some of the most difficult but rewarding work in the health care field, and Good Shepherd Pediatrics’ staff provides unconditional support, education and care to ensure the physical and emotional health of all involved.

To refer a patient to the Good Shepherd NAS program, call 484-788-5492 or email bearly@gsrh.org.