The emergence of the opioid crisis in the United States has to lead to a number of major problems and issues that have affected hundreds of thousands of Americans. Some of the common and expected issues associated with the opioid crisis are addiction, overdose, and death. However, besides these problems, there are also many unforeseen issues that have affected many throughout the nation, even newborns.
One of the biggest problems associated with the opioid crisis is the far-reaching effects that the epidemic has had on parents, children, grandparents, and more. Before we look at the effects that the opioid crisis has had on pregnant mothers in the United States, let’s first understand what this problem actually entails.
What Is Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome?
A neonatal abstinence syndrome is a group of problems and symptoms that occur in a newborn when that newborn has been exposed to addictive opiate drugs while still in the mother’s womb. This problem can occur when the pregnant mother is taking some sort of prescription or illicit drugs. For instance, heroin, oxycodone, codeine, methadone, buprenorphine, and alcohol use can all lead to neonatal abstinence syndrome in a newborn.
When a newborn is dealing with neonatal abstinence syndrome they will deal with a number of different symptoms, including:
- Blotchy skin
- Excessive crying
- Poor feeding
- Rapid breathing
- Sleep problems
These are just some of the symptoms, however, these problems will specifically depend on the type of drugs the mother used, how the body breaks down the drug, how much of the drug she was using, how long she was using it, and whether the baby was born full-term or early.
Symptoms will often begin to show within one to three days after birth and newborns will most often need to stay in the hospital for observation and monitoring for up to a week.
It should be noted that there are a number of other complications and problems that can occur from using drugs and alcohol during pregnancy that may not necessarily cause neonatal abstinence syndrome, these issues may include birth defects, low birth weight, premature birth, sudden infant death syndrome, developmental problems and more.
While these problems can be serious, there are treatment options for newborns who are dealing with neonatal abstinence syndrome. Neonatal abstinence syndrome treatment can last between one week to six months depending on a number of factors.
Some of these factors include a number of things including the drug involved, the newborn’s overall health, and whether the baby was born prematurely. There are a few easy things that can be done to help newborns who are fussy and hard to calm because of these symptoms, for instance, gently rocking the child, reducing noise and lights, and wrapping the baby in a blanket can all help to improve their situation.
It should be noted that in a severe situation, some babies will need to be exposed to medicines such as methadone or morphine to help treat withdrawal symptoms. In these severe cases, the babies will likely need to stay in the hospital under medical supervision for weeks or even months after birth in order to overcome this problem in a healthy way.
Obviously, these problems can all be avoided if a mother doesn’t use alcohol, drugs, or tobacco during pregnancy. However, if there are prescriptions that a mother does need to continue even while pregnant, it is something that should be discussed with a medical professional on how to proceed.
Now that we understand neonatal abstinence syndrome, let’s take a closer look at how this problem has affected the country and what is being done to help reduce this problem.
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome in the U.S.
The opioid epidemic is one of the biggest health crises in United States history. In fact, in 2017, the United States Department of Health and Human Services declared it a public health emergency and even announced a 5-point plan to combat the problem.
The opioid crisis in the United States is something that has to lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans over the past two decades. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), every day more than 130 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids. The opioid crisis is an ongoing problem and while there have been major effects by the national and local government entities to curb or reduce the impact that this situation has had on the nation, the problem continues to rage on.
As mentioned before, one often overseen issue attributed to the opioid crisis is one that affects pregnant mothers and newborns. Neonatal abstinence syndrome is one that doesn’t get the same news coverage as something like celebrity overdoses, but is something that has serious consequences of its own.
According to NIDA, analysis from 2014 showed that an estimated 32,000 babies were born with this problem in 2014, which shows a more than five-hold increase since 2004, a problem that directly correlates with the rise of opioid prescriptions and addiction in the country.
This means that every 15 minutes, a baby in the United States is born suffering from opioid withdrawal.
While this information is five years old and the country has made serious strides to counter the opioid crisis, according to more recent data from 2018, neonatal abstinence syndrome remains a “critical public health issues associated with significant medical, economic, and personal burden.”
Now that we better understand the problem as it relates to the opioid crisis and the country as a whole, let’s take a look at programs and initiatives that have already been instituted to help deal with this problem.
What Is Being Done?
While the opioid crisis is a major issue that has numerous effects on many different individuals throughout the country, there have been measures that people have taken to work to treat these problems and work that is being done to avoid them in the first place.
When it comes to neonatal abstinence syndrome specifically, certain agencies, like the Health Resources and Services Administration has programs in place to help with these problems. For example, this organization has a home visiting program in place that is there to help support families that have been impacted by or have the potential to be impacted by neonatal abstinence syndrome.
This program is an evidence-based home visiting service for at-risk women and parents with young children up to kindergarten.
Along with programs like these, there have been a number of states that have taken the initiative and built on these programs to help those mothers and newborns who are dealing or may potentially deal with neonatal abstinence syndrome.
For example, Colorado is one state that is focusing on mental health during home visits while Massachusetts has been enhancing home visits by offering families access to high-quality and comprehensive care programs. For instance, a program that is being offered in Berkshire County, where a quarter of families are directly affected by opioid misuse, is a 17-session nurturing parenting program for families that have been affected by substance abuse. The sessions are built on many different principles including mutuality, authenticity, and empathy.
Overall, these home visitation programs are in place to provide additional and preemptive support for those parents and families that are suffering or are at risk of suffering from some type of addiction problem.
It should also be noted that overall access to treatment programs like rehab facilities and substance abuse centers is one thing that can help to improve and reduce the rates of neonatal abstinence syndrome. If a mother has a substance abuse problem, these programs can help her learn more about the effects of this problem and strategies that she can implement in her life to overcome them and achieve long-term sobriety.
Reducing the Stigma
While there are already programs in place to help improve or reduce instances of neonatal abstinence syndrome, it is also important to learn more about what we can do as a community to help improve these problems and some aspects of treatment.
According to the National Associated of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors, research has identified that there is a specific stigma that surrounds neonatal abstinence syndrome and substance abuse disorders overall. This problem remains a significant barrier that impedes a pregnant woman’s ability to seek treatment that she may desperately need.
The stigma causes many mothers to not self-disclose their drugs and will not reach out for help. According to many medical experts, one of the problems that fuels this stigma is the language that we use to describe certain aspects of substance abuse problems. For example, the term “drug-addicted babies” is not an accurate description of babies born with NAS. Unfortunately, this language is successful at eliciting a strong emotional and reinforcing negative attitudes that discourage women from accessing the treatment that they require.
Overall, the opioid crisis and drug epidemic, in general, is a major problem that has led to far-reaching, life-threatening issues that impact everyone from grandparents to newborns. Learning more about this massive public health crisis is key to overcoming the problem.
Author Bio: Matthew Boyle is the Chief Operating Officer of Landmark Recovery, a growing group of drug and alcohol rehabs in Indiana and Kentucky. Matthew graduated from Duke University in 2011 Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree and has worked in the healthcare industry ever since, creating a holistic treatment model that supports patients in the pursuit of achieving lifelong sobriety.