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Home » Blog » Drug Addiction » The Tragic Rise in Babies Addicted to Opiates

The Tragic Rise in Babies Addicted to Opiates

Innocent Victims in the United States Opioid Epidemic

One of the biggest tragedies of the current opioid epidemic plaguing the nation is a large number of babies being born addicted to opiates. These newborn babies are the smallest and most innocent victims of the current opioid crisis and they’re suffering at the hands of an addiction that isn’t their own. An investigation by Reuters found that every 19 minutes, a baby addicted to opiates is born in the United States. This highlights the fact that the number of babies addicted to opiates has increased over 5 times as much from 2003 to 2013. There were 27,000 diagnosed cases of drug dependent babies in 2013 versus a mere 5,000 cases in 2003. An increase in cases of this magnitude shows the seriousness of the opioid epidemic. These drug addicted babies are not hard to spot because a majority of babies born to opioid addicted mothers suffer from neonatal abstinence syndrome.

What is Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS)?

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) entails problems, mainly withdrawal symptoms, that occur in a newborn from exposure to opiate drugs while in the womb. When a pregnant mother is using opiates and becomes addicted while pregnant the baby shares the mother’s dependence on the drug due to their physical connection. Babies are dependent on the drugs at birth, especially if the mother was using within the week of the birth. Since the baby is no longer receiving drugs, withdrawal symptoms start to appear shortly after they're born. One of the most heartbreaking symptoms to see is babies suffering from withdrawal tremors. The symptoms are treatable and tend to subside with time, however, some babies still suffer from long-term problems.

Symptoms of NAS

The symptoms of NAS depend on the exact type of drug used by the mother, length of use, amount of drug used, and whether or not the baby was born prematurely. Usually, symptoms appear after 1 to 3 days after birth but may take up to a week to appear. Most times a baby with NAS needs to stay at the hospital for observation for at least a week. It depends on how extreme the symptoms are and when they appear. The symptoms of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome may include the following:

  • Tremors
  • Fever
  • Excessive Crying
  • Irritability
  • Seizures
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Poor Feeding
  • Excessive Sucking
  • Sleep problems
  • Slow weight gain
  • Sweating
  • Mottling
  • Rapid Breathing
  • Hyperactive Reflexes
  • Increased muscle tone

Treatment for Babies Addicted to Opiates

In order to treat a baby with neonatal abstinence syndrome, there are certain factors to take into account. The correct treatment depends on the exact drug involved, the infant’s overall health, and whether or not the baby was born prematurely. A majority of babies with NAS are free to go home after a week of observation. The length of the hospital stay depends on the severity of the symptoms and when the symptoms first appeared. Babies with more severe symptoms need medications like methadone and morphine to treat withdrawal symptoms. The more severe the symptoms the longer the baby needs to stay at the hospital for observation. Even when a baby leaves the hospital they need more care and special treatment than a baby born without an addiction to opiates.

Where Hospitals Are Failing

Many doctors are failing to report babies addicted to opiates to social services. This oversight allows babies to go home with mothers that clearly have a drug addiction problem which sometimes leads to the baby’s death. In 2003, the Keeping Families and Children Safe Act was passed to require states to set up systems to ensure that doctors and other medical personnel alert social services about newborns suffering from NAS. Yet, almost 15 years later and only nine states and the District of Columbia have laws that satisfy the 2003 act. Due to the fact that many newborns with NAS go unreported the actual number of deaths from living with drug addicted parents is unknown.

Should Drug-Addicted Women Face Jail or Rehab?

As the opioid epidemic continues to grow, so does the dilemma of what to do with women abusing drugs while pregnant. There is currently a large majority of lawmakers that find a woman abusing drugs during pregnancy to be a criminal act. The state of Tennessee has the strictest law against women. It equates substance abuse while pregnant to aggravated assault, punishable by a 15-year prison sentence. About 24 other states, including District of Columbia, consider substance use during pregnancy a form of child abuse.

Some lawmakers oppose punishment over treatment. Organizations like the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and ACOG (American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) encourage state laws to push women to seek treatment for their addiction instead of punishing them for it. They claim that punishing drug addicted women won’t stop them from abusing drugs but it will stop them from seeking prenatal care. Some states agree with this viewpoint as 19 have created drug treatment programs specifically targeted to pregnant women. Additionally, 17 states and the District of Columbia give pregnant women with addictions access to state-funded drug treatment programs.

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