In the past decade, the number of babies born addicted to opiates has tripled. An April study found that in American hospitals, roughly one baby is born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) per hour, meaning they became addicted to drugs in utero and experienced withdrawal when they were born. According to the Los Angeles Times, symptoms of NAS include "seizures and tremors, respiratory distress, vomiting and an inability to eat without becoming sick." It can take weeks, sometimes months, for infants to go through withdrawal.
The study's lead author, Stephen Patrick, a fellow in neonatal-perinatal medicine at the University of Michigan, told USA Today that a growing number of newborns are hooked on prescription painkillers, such as Vicodin and Oxycontin, because their mothers abused the drugs during pregnancy. He said that the surge in NAS is most likely “explained by the national 'epidemic' of prescription-drug abuse” -– the study found 5.6 out of 1,000 pregnant women abuse opiates.
In some hospitals, the number of babies born with withdrawal symptoms is even higher than the national rate. "Nightline" recently spotlighted the neo-natal intensive care unit at the East Tennessee Children's Hospital in Knoxville, where almost half of babies born are drug-addicted -- the unit specializes in these cases. As of July 11, "out of the 58 babies in the hospital's NICU, 23 of them [were] going through withdrawal from prescription pills, including OxyContin, Vicodin and methadone," according to the report.
"Nightline" featured Grayson, an infant born in June, who was transported to the hospital because his mother, Ashton, 19, was addicted to painkillers. She has to watch her 3-week-old go through withdrawal –- Grayson requires morphine every three hours because his symptoms are so painful. "It makes me beat myself up every day," Ashton told "Nightline."
Mark Hudak, who wrote the American Academy of Pediatrics' 2012 clinical report on newborn withdrawal told USA Today that many mothers say they didn't know prescription painkillers could harm their babies, "perhaps because the drugs are technically legal."
But these drugs are so addictive that even women who understand the risks aren't able to quit once they become pregnant, Hudak added. Caitlin, who appeared on a recent episode of "Rock Center," was one of those mothers. She was using oxycodone before she conceived. “I couldn’t get out of bed without it,” she told reporter Kate Snow. Her pregnancy was an accident, she admitted, and Caitlin’s daughter, Annabelle, was born addicted to oxycodone, too.
Florida, Caitlin's home state, had one of the most notable increases in babies born addicted to painkillers. Between 75-80 babies a year are treated for withdrawal the Children's Hospital of South West Florida, Snow reported.
Michelle Waddell, director of Neo Natal Services at the hospital, stressed that while it’s easy to point fingers, mothers shouldn’t be blamed and dismissed. These women need to get treatment, too.
Programs specifically for drug-addicted pregnant women are now more widely available because the problem is so widespread. But there's as yet no established course of action once an addicted pregnant woman checks in -- quitting pills cold turkey could lead to miscarriage. Patients are sometimes prescribed Methadone, a drug that helps to curb their cravings while they're weaned from of other drugs. The strategy is problematic, however, because babies also can be born addicted to Methadone.
The April study revealed such alarming numbers that experts reiterated how important it is to prevent and treat addiction. "Novel pharmacotherapy research is needed to improve maternal opiate maintenance strategies to protect the fetus from in utero withdrawal, and to reduce the incidence and severity of NAS," Marie J. Hayes, PhD and Mark S. Brown, MD wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association.