Tiny Addicts: How America’s Opioid Crisis Affects Babies

February 8, 2018

Every 25 minutes the world’s tiniest and most vulnerable souls, just hours old, are victims of a vastly growing opioid epidemic. The second the cord is cut, separating a mother from child, the tough road begins. Born addicts against their will, they may suffer what nurses report as trembling, vomiting, fever, diarrhea, sweating, unrest, convulsions, high pitched screams, difficulty sleeping, inability to eat correctly, dehydration, stiff muscles, and failure to calm. If you picture an addicted adult going cold-turkey off their drug of choice, you can begin to imagine just what these babies are experiencing.

opioid crisis pills babies born addicted neonatal abstinence syndrome

Babies born addicted

As disturbing as that sounds, this scenario plays out in hospitals across the country every day. These babies are addicted to opioids. When a pregnant mother is addicted to opioids, whether prescription (i.e., codeine, methadone, oxycodone, hydrocodone) or illegal, such as heroin or opium, the baby absorbs these substances through the womb. Once born, babies are no longer subject to these drugs via the mother’s body and they begin the painful process of withdrawal, or Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS).

Upon baby’s first breath, treatment will largely depend on the size and gestational age, the type of substance the mother abused, the severity of the addiction, and the last time the mother used the drug before delivery. Doctors place babies with the most severe withdrawal symptoms in the NICU to best manage their care, sparking controversy on taking up space intended for babies with more medically severe problems.

While a large percentage of babies require pharmacological therapy such as morphine in decreasing doses over time to lessen their suffering, hospitals also help the process with restricted noises, low stimulation, cuddling, swaddling, skin-to-skin contact, a high-calorie formula, and a lot of patience and love. In addition, doctors are noting that mothers are the first line of treatment.

Treatment and withdrawal

A multi-faceted plan seems to be the most effective for addressing NAS and nursing these precious babies to the health they deserve. Supportive care involving the mother and hospital caregivers has been shown to decrease the need for medicine to lessen withdrawal symptoms. While babies are suffering from NAS, their opioid-dependent mothers also undergo significant stress during the post-partum period, especially if separated from their baby. Mothers that are encouraged to “room-in” with their baby show reduced anxiety, and valuable NICU space is left open for others in need. With this model, nurses and staff can help transition the new mother appropriately into motherhood, provide emotional support, education, and be there to help when things get overwhelming.

Across our country, scenes of babies suffering from opioid withdrawal continue to rise and present as a significant health problem. However, suffering should never happen alone, especially for the youngest enduring the pain of ridding their bodies of the drugs in their systems. More than ever, these babies need secure attachment to their mothers and caregivers from the beginning. Bonding is imperative and mothers may not be available all the time or at all. Hospitals rely heavily on volunteers to fill the critical space of loving and cuddling these babies.

The many faces of opioid addiction

At first instinct, it is easy to want to shame these mothers. After all, who would knowingly put their babies at risk to experience such grueling pain? And, while there are scores of women that consciously decide to abuse drugs while pregnant, there are also those that don’t know they are addicted until they are addicted. The mother that takes pain medicine for a dental procedure and now can’t stop. The mother that was in a car accident and the pain is just too much to manage. These are also the faces of opioid addiction. Judgment or not, let us push past and see the tiny faces of this tragedy. Let us educate ourselves for the greater good. Reach out to your local hospital and see how you can help babies in need whether in a nursery or the NICU. Ask questions about what they need, how you can be of service at the hospital or in the community, and what you can do to ease the burden on nurses trying to comfort each child’s individual needs. Collectively let’s make a dent in the help needed to treat and love on the NAS babies of our world.

If you or someone you know is addicted to opioids or any other substance, please reach out to Drug Abuse or call 1.877.914.1493. For information on support in the NICU, please visit Hand to Hold.


Drug Abuse: Dramatic Increases in Maternal Opioid Use and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

AAP Gateway: Neonatal Drug Withdrawal

Clinical Advisor: Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal