Hospitals in Search of Cuddlers to Heal Drug Addicted Babies

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Imagine all of the worst aspects of opiate withdrawal: the sweats, cramps, irritability, unbearable cravings, nausea, shakes, temperature fluctuations, and bone-deep pain. The pain of withdrawal is so great that most adults who are dependent on opiates and other substances can’t bear to detox without medical assistance. Now, imagine all of this happening to a newborn infant. It’s a terrifying prospect, but the reality is that drug-addicted babies are born every day, and the number of infants born dependent on substances (due to in utero use by their mother) is increasing every year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the incidence of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), or babies born addicted to opiates, has tripled over the past fifteen years. That jump mirrors the trend of the opiate addiction epidemic within the general United States population, which has steadily increased in frequency and intensity in every state in the country. Now, hospitals are fighting back by establishing cuddler programs, in which volunteers hold and cuddle drug-addicted babies to provide relief from withdrawal and to help them heal.

Now, imagine all of this happening to a newborn infant. It’s a terrifying prospect, but the reality is that drug-addicted babies are born every day. The number of infants born dependent on substances (due to in utero use by their mother) is increasing every year. This condition is called NAS, or neonatal abstinence syndrome. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the incidence of babies born with NAS, specifically babies born addicted to opiates, has tripled over the past fifteen years. That jump mirrors the trend of the opiate addiction epidemic within the general United States population, which has steadily increased in frequency and intensity in every state in the country. Now, hospitals are fighting back by establishing cuddler programs, in which volunteers hold and cuddle drug-addicted babies to provide relief from withdrawal and to help them heal.

Today, hospitals are fighting back by establishing cuddler programs, in which volunteers hold and cuddle drug-addicted babies to provide relief from withdrawal and to help them heal.

Increase in Drug-Addicted Babies is the Result of Nationwide Trends

According to the CDC, since 1999 the number of prescriptions written for opioids in America has quadrupled. The massive influx of potent narcotic painkillers in the country led to a rise in overdose deaths and addiction. Along with the rates of prescription, opioid overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999. Between 2000 and 2015, nearly half a million Americans died of a drug overdose. Opiates account for more than 6 out of 10 of these fatal overdoses. Heroin addiction has also skyrocketed, partially as the result of so many Americans becoming dependent upon prescription painkillers. When regulations for opiate prescriptions are tighter, many turn to heroin. Between 2010 and 2015, heroin deaths tripled in the United States.

Opiates account for more than 6 out of 10 of these fatal overdoses. Heroin addiction has also skyrocketed, partially as the result of so many Americans becoming dependent upon prescription painkillers. When regulations for opiate prescriptions tightened, many of those who were dependent upon them turned to heroin, the illicit but chemically similar substance.

How Has the Opiate Epidemic Contributed to the Rise in NAS?

For individuals who survive opiate abuse, the consequences are still dire. Jail, addiction, health problems, homelessness, and despair are all possibilities without professional help. For this population, giving birth to drug-addicted babies is also a tragic consequence of use. As the numbers of addiction rates rise, so too do the numbers of babies born dependent on substances like opiates.

The number of babies born addicted to opiates within Florida has risen every single year for the past 10 years. In 2005, 338 babies were born with an opioid addiction in Florida; by 2015 that number was 2,487, according to the Agency for Healthcare Administration. For drug-dependent mothers, often times not having access to treatment, or discovering that they are pregnant later into their pregnancy, means that they continue to use opiates throughout their term.

A fetus that is dependent on the blood and nutrient supply of its mother will receive doses of whatever substances the mother is using, including any drugs she consumes. For many babies, this means that they receive consistent doses of opiates. Drugs like heroin, prescription painkillers, or maintenance opioids like suboxone or methadone enter their body. When these babies are born, they are suddenly cut off from the drug supply in their mother’s system, and they suffer the effects of drug withdrawal.

How Do Hospitals Help Drug Addicted Babies?

Drug addicted babies who are born to mothers dependent on substances like opiates require extra care and monitoring. Besides the discomfort and pain of withdrawal, these babies are at risk of developing serious developmental or health problems. Babies born dependent on opiates or other substances are at a greater risk for:

  •      Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
  •      Developmental delays
  •      Low birth weight or impaired growth
  •      Sleep disturbances
  •      Central nervous system problems
  •      Emotional or behavioral issues later in life

Some infants can be treated for withdrawal medically, while others are unable to tolerate medical treatment. Most of these infants suffer severe discomfort in the first hours and days of life. Some hospitals have found a way to help soothe that discomfort. In states like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, where the opiate epidemic has hit particularly hard, some hospitals have started volunteer programs in which screened individuals come cuddle, rock, and hold drug-addicted babies while they recover in the hospital. This physical touch and cuddling comfort the babies and helps alleviate some symptoms of withdrawal, such as restlessness. In fact, skin contact helps babies developmentally, emotionally, and physically. This contact can help:

  •      Promote good sleeping patterns
  •      Reduce stress
  •      Improve brain growth and development
  •      Reduce time spent in the hospital or risk of medical complications within the first year of life
  •      Regulate body temperature
  •      Promote alertness and emotional stability later in life

What About the Mothers?

These volunteer cuddling programs for drug-addicted babies can be especially helpful. They provide help while the mother is unable to visit with the baby due to addiction treatment, legal restrictions on custody rights, or unpredictable living situations and transportation. Nurses can’t spend the time with these babies that they need, so volunteers fill the gap.

Unfortunately, many women who give birth to drug-addicted babies don’t seek treatment during their pregnancy. This is due to the stigma attached to drug use, especially for expectant mothers. Shame, rejection and societal judgment often lead to these women avoiding treatment. The best way to help these mothers and their children is to provide access to comprehensive treatment before or after birth. Lack of treatment options and social stigma make this a difficult goal to accomplish. However, the rising awareness of this opiate epidemic, and the willingness of the medical community, the government, and private citizens to confront this disease, is cause for hope.

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