Prescription Drugs Affecting More Newborns

naspediatricsDue to the prescription drug epidemic that the United States is still battling, there has been a significant increase in the number of babies being born addicted to narcotic painkillers. A recent study looked into the problem of infants born addicted to drugs, something called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). The study first delved into the babies addicted to drugs in general, however, researchers noticed that many babies who were born with an addiction had mothers who were not taking illicit drugs. In fact, these mothers were being treated by doctors who were prescribing them narcotic painkillers.

Prescription opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone are very similar to heroin. They produce the same euphoric effect and they have painful withdrawal symptoms. Painkillers are one of the most abused drugs in the country, and legislators and law enforcement have been working tirelessly to reduce the amount of people that abuse the pills.

Researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center studied information from 112,029 women who were pregnant in Tennessee. They found that of all the babies born addicted to drugs, nearly two-thirds of the mothers had filled prescriptions for at least one painkiller during the pregnancy. Other drugs were also present, including prescription antidepressants, nicotine and street drugs. The study appears in the journal Pediatrics.

The study is important because it specifically looks at the prescription painkiller problem and how it is affecting newborns and mothers. It shines a light on the need for more doctor education regarding painkiller abuse and the importance of drug monitoring systems that would allow doctors to see if their patient is exhibiting drug-seeking behaviors.

“Historically, drug withdrawal for newborns has been described among illicit drug use such as heroin or women treated for previous opioid abuse. This is really one of the first studies to look at legal prescriptions for pregnant women. And it draws attention to what is going on in our nation,” explained Stephen Patrick, a neonatologist who specializes in infant drug dependency.

Hopefully, for the sake of our children, doctors will start to pay more attention to what they are prescribing to women who are pregnant, as there are many other damaging effects that can cause harm to the babies than NAS, including a wide range of complications before and after birth.

Addiction Treatment for Expecting Mothers

pregnantmotherOne of the most difficult, yet essential populations of people struggling with substance abuse includes expecting mothers. Women who are pregnant require additional care and delicacy to ensure safe conditions for both the mothers and the babies.

In the case of opiate addiction, this can be incredibly difficult, since withdrawal from drugs like heroin and prescription painkillers can be excruciatingly painful and the physical toll creates a high risk for miscarriage. As a result, the standard treatment for a long time has been to put the mother on methadone. It seems to work, but then the newborn must go through withdrawal during the first days of life. It creates a condition called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), and is an incredibly painful thing for a newborn.

The advent of buprenorphine has made this a bit easier, as the withdrawal symptoms are decreased in both severity and duration. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the use of buprenorphine reduced the number of hospitalization days for the babies from over 17 to about 10.

Despite what many doctors would consider a significant improvement, hopefully researchers will find a way to safely withdraw a mother from opiates months before birth so that the newborn babies aren’t subjected to such a harsh situation. Could a longer-term taper from buprenorphine, say over a period of 60 or 90 days, reduce the symptoms enough to not produce a significant risk of miscarriage? Are there any other medications being developed to use instead that will not harm the baby? Hopefully, the answer is yes to one or both of those questions.

The problem doesn’t simply stop after birth, though, as the mother’s addiction still needs to be addressed, for her safety as well as the child’s. There are very few facilities that can provide treatment in a safe place where mothers and newborns can be together, an example of which is mentioned in New England.

Without places like this, which tend to have long waiting lists, most mothers seeking help have family members care for their children while they attend a residential treatment program. After completion of an inpatient facility, it is often advised for them to continue with outpatient treatment and support groups for mothers to assist in strengthening the healthy environment.