Identifying and Treating Babies Born Addicted to Drugs

Julie Kirk
newborn baby with cap

When a pregnant woman abuses drugs, she not only exposes her unborn baby to the drug but also places her baby at risk for serious health issues. The rate of newborn babies that are born addicted to drugs is increasing at an alarming rate. Newborn babies have become the innocent, vulnerable victims of the opioid epidemic.

What Is Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome?

Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) is the term used for a group of conditions that occurs in a newborn who was exposed to addictive drugs while in the mother's womb. Some drugs are more likely to cause neonatal abstinence syndrome than others, but basically, they all will have some effect on the baby.

Sad Statistics

The rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome has gone from 1.5 to 6 cases per 1000 births between the years 2000 and 2013. It has increased fivefold and it is estimated that a drug-addicted baby is born every 25 minutes. Not only has the rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome increased but the hospital charges have also increased substantially going from 732 million to 1.5 billion dollars in that same 13-year timeframe.

Diagnosing a Drug Addicted Baby

The symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome may initially resemble other conditions, therefore, a doctor's full assessment of the baby is essential. If there is knowledge or suspicion of maternal substance abuse, a detailed accurate report of the mother's drug use is important. The baby's urine and meconium (first bowel movement) will be tested and a neonatal abstinence scoring system may also be used. Babies are assigned points on signs and symptoms and how severe they are. This will help diagnose and grade the severity of the withdrawal and help with the planning of the treatment as well.

Withdrawal of a Drug Addicted Baby

A newborn baby may experience symptoms of withdrawal as early as 24 to 48 hours after birth or as late as 5 to 10 days. The symptoms will vary depending on the type of drugs that were used, how recently it was used and if the baby is considered premature or full-term. A premature baby may actually have less severe symptoms and make a quicker recovery. Regardless, each baby will experience withdrawal symptoms differently, the most common include:

  • Irritability (fussiness)
  • Excessive crying
  • High-pitched crying
  • Body tremors (shaking and trembling)
  • Rapid breathing
  • Blotchy skin tone
  • Seizures
  • Hyperactive reflexes
  • Poor feeding and sucking
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Yawning
  • Tight muscle tone
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Sweating
  • Unstable body temperature (fever)
  • Stuffy nose or sneezing

Possible Complications

In addition to the withdrawal symptoms, immediate and long-term complications may include:

Treatment for the Baby

The doctor will determine the specific treatment needed for your baby based on:

  • The type of drug the baby was exposed to.
  • The severity of the baby's drug addiction.
  • The baby's gestational age.
  • The baby's overall health.
  • The parent's preference for treatment.

Types of Treatment

Different types of treatment that may help the baby include:

  • Swaddling the baby in a blanket may help give comfort to an irritable baby.
  • Gently rocking the baby.
  • Skin-to-skin contact. (Kangaroo care)
  • Keeping the room quiet and the lights dim.
  • Extra caloric intake may be needed for the baby because of feeding trouble or slow growth.
  • IV fluids may be needed if the baby is vomiting, has diarrhea and has become dehydrated.
  • Medications may be needed to treat severe withdrawal symptoms. These medications are in the same family as the drugs that the baby is recovering from and once the withdrawal is controlled, the baby will be weaned off the drug.
  • A drug-addicted baby can expect to stay in the hospital for about 17 days compared to 2 days for other newborns.

Treatment can last from one week to six months. It is not unusual for the baby to need extra care after medical treatment is over and the baby leaves the hospital.

Prevention and Care

Neonatal abstinence syndrome is actually a totally preventable problem but the expectant, addicted mother needs to receive the proper care and treatment for her drug abuse. This will help ensure that her baby has a healthy start at life and a promising, fulfilling future.

Identifying and Treating Babies Born Addicted to Drugs