Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital recently received a $2.5 million donation anonymously for the purposes of expanding their treatment services for babies born dependent on drugs and alcohol. It is a gift that will significantly improve the ability of the hospital to effectively treat and care for babies who will require weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) before they are free from a physical dependence on the drugs they were exposed to in the womb.
According to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, the number of babies in need of such care has risen considerably every year across the state. In 2016, they report that 4,215 babies were exposed to addictive substances due to their mother’s use, 1,700 more babies than in 2015. Hillsborough County was home to the highest number with 579 babies born substance-dependent.
It is a serious problem with devastating effects, and the money for services will certainly help. But as with all things drug-related, the real solution to the problem is addiction treatment for the mothers who are struggling to give birth to healthy babies and to become the sober parents their children need them to be.
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome
When a woman is using addictive substances for any purpose during pregnancy, the unborn fetus is exposed to the drugs in her system. From alcohol and marijuana to opiate painkillers and street drugs like heroin, crack, and cocaine, any level of use puts the unborn child at risk. For many babies in Florida, the biggest problem is opiate painkillers, taken by mothers who are either trying to manage chronic pain and/or have developed an addiction.
Called neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), children exposed to drugs in the womb have a horrific experience when they are born. Suddenly without the drug their body has become dependent upon, they struggle in a way that is heartbreaking to watch.
Dr. Prabhu Parimi is the director of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Maternal, Fetal & Neonatal Institute. Says Dr. Parimi: “These babies cry incessantly, they are difficult to pacify, they do not eat well, they are awake for most of the time.”
Dr. Parimi is happy to apply the anonymous donation to creating a NAS follow-up clinic for children and families touched by the problem: “This philanthropy is helping us recruit the right staff and bridge all the gaps. We are looking at the needs of the mother and baby and working with the community to meet those needs. Are they sitting, are they talking, are they having behavioral issues, are they at risk for other neurodevelopmental issues? We want to support them through this continuum and we want to support their babies.”
The goal is to not only identify the issues that babies born with NAS will experience during their childhood and as they grow into adults but also to provide services to assist along the way.
Katie Wooten, BSN, RN, is the nurse coordinator for the NAS clinic in Sarasota and the one that is projected to open in St. Petersburg. She says: “We provide occupational therapy, speech therapy, and then of course, a pediatrician there as well, and we will also provide neurodevelopmental testing starting at 1 year of age.”
Support, Not Stigma
It is easy to judge mothers who expose their babies to drugs and blame them for the difficulties their children are facing, but it is important to remember that this is nothing that anyone chooses for their child. No one sets out to develop an addiction, and many mothers do not realize they are pregnant or are scared to seek help once they recognize they are dealing with both an addiction and a pregnancy. Others are living with chronic pain and do not know how to function without their medications, especially when dealing with pregnancy.
Shaming someone who is struggling with an addiction is not going to help them to help their child – not during the pregnancy, immediately after the birth, or in the months and years that follow. Pregnancy and childbirth are just the first steps in a long life of parenthood, and both mother and child need all the support they can get to make a strong start in recovery.
Is a woman you love struggling with addiction during pregnancy? Are you ready to help her connect with treatment services that can help her begin to heal?