The hospital nursery where newborns are kept is relatively peaceful, unless you pass the crib of an opiate addicted baby. Their cries rarely stop.
“They’re irritable, they can’t be consoled. They may have a lot of neurological symptoms, they may be very jittery, they may be very stiff, they may have seizures, they may stop breathing,” says Dr. William Liu, a neonatologist on the medical staff of The Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida
Dr. Liu helped craft a protocol for the Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida to diagnose neonatal abstinence syndrome, meaning a baby who is born drug dependent because the mother was using, in this case, opiate pain meds like heroine, Vicodin or oxycodone.
“We have a standardized scoring system that all the nurses in the hospital system are trained to do that allows an objective assessment for symptoms of drug withdrawal,” says Dr. Liu.
The rise in opiate addicted babies mirrors drug use in the general population. In the past several years locally, it’s gone up 800%.
At the Children’s Hospital nine babies were in detox the day we visited. The staff has learned to handle them with care.
“We try and keep their environment as subdued as possible, as quiet as possible. We use low lighting, natural light from the windows, try not to have overhead lights on,” says Michelle Waddell, director of neonatal intensive care services at the Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida.
If needed, newborns are given small amounts of morphine sulphate. Weaning is a slow, methodical process.
“They can be with us up to three months because they need their medication to complete their withdrawal process,” says Waddell.
By the time they go home, babies are drug free.
“We hope what we’re doing will optimize the baby’s outcome and give that baby the best chance to reach his or her full potential,” says Dr. Liu.
Treating them at birth allows these babies to beat the first battle of their young lives.