Imagine a baby having a seizure. Image a newly-born infant, pink and wrinkled, with rigid muscles that won’t relax, struggling to breath between wails.
Seizures, rigid muscles, a unique cry and breathing problems are just a few of the symptoms of a baby who has a condition that is shocking the nation, a condition called opiate painkiller withdrawal.
Known as Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) to the medical world, this syndrome affects one baby every hour. Because each hour, one baby is born suffering from opiate painkiller withdrawal.
If you’ve seen the news, the study from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) is blazing in headlines everywhere: its statistics are saying that 3.4 out of every 1,000 infants born in a hospital in 2009 suffered from NAS. This is 13,539 a year, or one drug-addicted baby born every hour.
Babies Undergoing Withdrawal
About 60-80% of babies exposed to chronic opioid use in utero will develop the syndrome, and treatment costs have grown to $720 million. Even though withdrawal symptoms do not seem to do long-term damage, the effects are painful to the baby—and painful for others to watch. Doctors and nurses can sometimes identify the baby by their distinct cry. Other symptoms include
- Irritability and difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty breathing
- Tremors and seizures
- Low birth weight and developmental issues
- Stiff, rigid muscles that won’t relax
Although the syndrome is different from those caused by cocaine, it can also be caused by illegal opiates like heroin. However, the surge of addicted babies is probably explained by the national epidemic of prescription drug abuse.
The Prescription Drug Abuse Epidemic
The number of pregnant women abusing opiates increased fivefold from 2000 to 2009. No wonder the number of babies born with painkiller withdrawal has tripled within the same time frame.
Although the prevalence of drug use among pregnant women hasn’t changed since the early 2000s, the types of drugs that women are using are changing, according to Andreea Creanga, a researched form the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
This means that more women are abusing opiates, such as Vicodin and OxyContin. In fact, the CDC has identified that opiate painkiller abuse is now causing more overdose deaths than heroin and cocaine combined.
However, the study does not differentiate between mothers who are taking the prescription drugs legally not realizing it could harm their babies, and those who were simply too addicted to quit once they became pregnant.
For women who become pregnant while dependent on opioids, it is important not to attempt to quit cold turkey. Out of concern for their baby, many mothers stop using drugs abruptly. However, immediate abstinence may actually harm the fetus, not to mention it carries a high risk for relapse which could cause further damage.
The best advice is to seek your doctor, who will help you taper the drug, controlling the opioid exposure in a way that will be safe for you and your baby.
For women taking prescription drugs for chronic pain or other conditions, you can explore other options with your doctor. All drugs fall under a pregnancy category according to the risk of harm to the fetus. Sometimes the benefits of the drug for the mother will outweigh the risks, but other times alternative therapies should be used.
In both cases, you should still consult your physician or practitioner.
Conclusion: The Best Way
But you know what I’m going to say now, don’t you? The best method to prevent your baby having to go through opiate withdrawal is to recover from the addiction before pregnancy.
You probably realize by now that addiction doesn’t impact you alone; sometimes it affects the people who love you more than it affects you. Don’t hit the “rock bottom” before you start the process of recovery, don’t wait until you hear your baby crying.
Recovery is hard, but it’s not impossible, and the sooner you get started, the easier—believe it or not— it will be, for you, your family, and … your future family.