A growing number of babies are going through detox in their first few days of life. The rate of admissions to neonatal ICUs for symptoms of drug withdrawal, known as neonatal abstinence syndrome or NAS, nearly quadrupled between 2004 and 2013, according to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Born to mothers who use narcotics, these babies suffer from irritability, high-pitched crying, sweating, gastrointestinal problems, poor sucking reflex and low weight gain; and in some cases, seizures. It is most commonly seen in infants born to mothers addicted to heroin or prescription opioids.
Researchers analyzed data from 674,845 newborns at 299 hospitals across the United States. They found that the rate of admission into neonatal intensive care units for NAS increased from 7 to 27 cases per 1,000 admissions from 2004 to 2013. The median length of stay in the ICU increased from 13 to 19 days in the same time period.
The study also analyzed the use of different medications to treat NAS over time. Morphine has remained the most common: it was given to almost half of infants in 2004 and to nearly 75 percent in 2013. The use of methadone decreased between 2011 and 2013. However in small studies, babies given methadone were discharged earlier than those treated with morphine.
The paper’s authors note that there is growing evidence that breast feeding can reduce symptoms and lessen the need for medication. They say the benefits of receiving breast milk outweigh the risks of passing drugs from mother to baby, which they say is minimal when the mothers are in treatment. However, in the last year of the study, only a third of the infants with NAS received breast milk. The researchers recommend increasing efforts to get mothers to breast feed.