The United States is currently in the middle of an opioiduse epidemic. Opioids include such narcotics as heroin, but also include prescribed painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin. As a result of increased opioid use, the number of infants born to women using opioids during pregnancy, either prescribed or recreationally, has climbed dramatically. Sadly, these infants bear the consequences of their mothers’ drug use, and are born addicted. As of August, 2016, the number of infants born addicted to opioids had tripled during the previous 15-year period. Today, an infant addicted to opioids is born every 25 minutes. Consequently, caring for these small victims of opioid use has become a priority, both for hospitals and for families.
INDICATIONS OF OPIOID ADDICTION IN INFANTS
Infants born addicted to drugs used by their mothers during pregnancy exhibit a condition known as Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS).Depending on the frequency and quantity of the mother’s drug use, as well as on the stage of pregnancy in which she used the drug, NAS infants born addicted to opioids may show all or some of the following symptoms:
Low birth weight Easily awakened Excessive, high-pitched crying
Disturbed sleep patterns Irritability Inability to relax
Hyperactivity Poor feeding habits Projectile vomiting
Low frustration tolerance Excessive sudden movements Urinary and GI problems
Easily startled Abnormal rigidity of muscles Tremors
CARING FOR OPIOID-ADDICTED INFANTS
Without question, caring for these infants can be overwhelming. In some cases, the mother is not in a position or condition to care for the baby herself. Fortunately, there are caring and courageous foster and adoptive parents who find the strength to care for these babies and love them through this first difficult period of their lives. Listed below are some of the tips that parents and hospitals have learned in caring for these babies:
- Provide a calm, dimly-lit environment. Voices should be soft and soothing. Movements should not be sudden. White noise is recommended to simulate the atmosphere in the uterus.
- Swaddling the infant provides a womb-like environment. It also supports any shaking or jerking limbs, and can calm the infant during tremors. Caretakers are encouraged to rock and cuddle the infant as much as possible.
- When the infant becomes agitated, a warm, soapy bath will help. The caretaker should get in the tub with the infant. A lavender wash is recommended for the infant because it is calming and induces sleep. The infant’s swaddling blanket should also be cleaned using the same lavender wash.
- During sleep, the infant’s head should be elevated to facilitate breathing and digestion. Head-positioning wedges and special cribs are available for this purpose. Also, an air purifier can help alleviate any infant problems with allergies or breathing.
- It is very important for the caretaker to learn the signs that the infant is about to experience major emotional distress. Such episodes are common for these infants and the crying can last for hours if the infant is not soothed before they begin. Typical signs are increased yawns, hiccups, sneezing, musclerigidity, jerking limbs, and sucking.Other signs are refusal to make eye contact, and changes in the infant’s skin color. After much experience, parents and caretakers have learned to simply place the infant calmly and safely in his or her crib and walk away for a time if they were not successful in stopping the baby’s emotional distress episode. Some caretakers have found that mixing 1 teaspoon of dark corn syrup in water, and feeding 1 ounce of the mixture to the infant helped with persistent crying.
- Parents and caretakers of NAS babies are encouraged to talk with others going through the same experience, and to attend support groups.
- If the breastmilk of the baby’s mother is not suitable, or if the baby has been placed with foster or adoptive parents, the baby’s doctor should be consulted regarding a proper formula. Since many NAS babies are born with gastrointestinal problems or low birth weight, they will require a specific formula. Often caretakers will have to experiment with different formulas until they find a compatible one.
- Finally, parents, adoptive parents, and foster parents of NAS babies should form cooperative relationships with doctors and educators.
Because of the availability and approved use of opioids as a means of relieving pain, the number of NAS babies has increased dramatically. Expectant mothers need to educate themselves concerning the effects of any drug on their unborn children, as well as the advisability of taking that drug during pregnancy. Parents and caretakers who nurture these infants as they are gradually weaned from their addiction must also keep up with the most current methods of caring for these babies.With the proper environment, skilled care, and lots of love, these babies will have an excellent chance of living happy and productive lives.