Babies Born to Addicted Mothers Go Through Difficult Withdrawals

The number of babies born addicted to prescription drugs has more than doubled in the last ten years, according to new estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC said that most common drugs being used by pregnant women are powerful narcotic painkillers, such as Vicodin and OxyContin. Exact national statistics on the number of babies that have to go through this drug withdrawal syndrome are not available, because many states have not finished collecting the data about this problem.

Officials at the CDC said the problem of babies being born addicted to these drugs is part of the prescription drug epidemic in the United States today. An estimated seven million Americans are addicted and many more millions abusing prescription drugs. In the 1960s and 70s, babies born addicted tended to be dependent on heroin, but in the 1980s, more were born dependent on cocaine. Many older doctors are now able to use their experience with heroin-addicted babies, because the withdrawal syndrome from opiate painkillers is similar and unfortunately, just as unpleasant. Long-term studies of babies born addicted to heroin found that some have learning difficulties and attention deficit disorder, although the majority recover and catch up to their peer group over time. Long-term studies of the effects of opiate painkiller addiction in infants have not been done.

“The epidemic of drug addicted newborns really follows exactly from the spread of the pill mills, the ability to buy prescription drugs like OxyContin on the street or to get them on the Internet,” Dr. Lewis Ruben, director of newborn services at Tampa General Hospital and chair of neonatology at the University of South Florida, told USA Today. “It is staggering to think of the financial, emotional and social costs of this problem.”

States such as Florida, where hundreds of “pill mills” are operating, have the highest numbers of babies with opiate dependencies. Between 2006 and 2010, the number of babies in Florida born with withdrawal syndrome increased from 354 to 1374, according to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration.

“I’m scared to death that this will become the crack baby epidemic,” said Florida Atty. Gen. Pam Bondi.

Babies exposed to opiate drugs for months in the womb go through a painful withdrawal syndrome that includes symptoms such as twitching, vomiting, and screaming. They often have trouble breathing and eating, and sometimes rub their faces with their hands. So intensely that it causes bleeding. Pediatricians often administer narcotics and sedatives, such as morphine, methadone, and phenobarbital, in intravenous units measured in micrograms. Sometimes it takes weeks to wean the babies off their replacement drugs and complete their withdrawal process.

“It is the newborn equivalent of an adult who goes off the drugs cold turkey,” said Dr. Rubin. “It is really horrible to see these kids. They look in so much pain.”

Dr. Mary Newport, medical director of neo-natal intensive care at Spring Hill Regional Hospital in Florida, said that some addicted mothers have miscarriages and some babies experience seizures. The mothers often mistakenly believe that prescription drugs are not harmful to their babies.

“I didn’t go to medical school to become a pain management doctor for newborns,” she said. “It has been thrust upon us. We feel very very sorry for the babies, and it is very difficult for us to understand why these young women think it’s okay.”

A committee from the American Academy of Pediatrics is currently working on a revised list of treatment guidelines to be published next year.