Addiction’s tiniest victims

MARQUETTE – According to a recent University of Michigan study, one baby is born addicted to prescription and non-prescription drugs every hour in the United States.

At Marquette General Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit they have seen an increase of 378 percent in drug addicted newborns diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome in the past six years. Last year alone, 67 infants were treated for NAS.

NAS means the newborns display symptoms of withdrawal from these drugs. Sometimes the babies show symptoms right at birth others start to show symptoms hours or days later when the drugs wear off.

“Once we cut the umbilical cord the baby is no longer getting the drugs so we observe them to see if they begin showing signs of withdrawals,” Regional NICU medical director Dr. Julia Frei said. “Newborns with NAS are very challenging because they need constant monitoring. We use a NAS scoring system every three to four hours to see how the child is doing.”

The struggles the baby faces are compound when the mother is addicted to a combination of drugs both illegal and prescribed. If an expectant mother takes any of the following drugs they are risking the health of their baby: amphetamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, cocaine, heroin, marijuana or opiates/narcotics. These drugs can pass through her body and then enter the baby through the placenta causing the mother and child to be addicted.

“We often times find a combinations of drugs is involved such as taking an anti depressant with nicotine,” Frei said. “By in large the population that we see is moms addicted to multiple drugs and each one can play a part in the neonatal unit when the child goes through withdrawals.”

The symptoms the babies go through are numerous including a shrill, high-pitched cry, irritability, tight muscles to the degree that the child may be unable to move, poor feeding, frequent feeding, loose stools, seizures and vomiting. Each baby is different but the one constant is they need intensive continuous care. Babies are kept in a low light and low stimulation environment and also have daily physical therapy to help alleviate their symptoms.

Babies going through withdrawals have to spend an average of three weeks or longer in the neonatal intensive care unit. Even after babies leave the unit, many still continue physical therapy.

“It is heart-wrenching to see these tiny infants suffering through withdrawal,” Frei said. “These high-needs newborns need be constantly swaddled, held and rocked and their crying is almost constant, but with proper prenatal care the effects of drugs can be greatly reduced and in some cases, eliminated.”

The Superior Health Foundation was so moved by the plight of these babies it has announced the creation of a new multi-year campaign to help bring awareness of the issue of drug addiction among babies born in the Upper Peninsula. The campaign will stress the importance of expected mothers with addictions maintaining their prenatal appointments with their physician.

“Using a variety of media outlets, the goal of our U.P.-wide campaign is to raise awareness through education, offer support and resources to those affected, and ultimately reduce the number of addicted infants,” said Jim LaJoie, who is executive director of the Superior Health Foundation. “As our campaign matures, our messaging will expand to encompass everything from treatment to prevention of drug use.”

If a woman finds out she is pregnant it is important she see her physician immediately about the drugs she is taking- illegal or prescribed – to ensure her child will not have withdrawals. Under no circumstances should a patient stop taking her prescriptions before seeing her physician as this may cause harmful side effects for the patient or the baby.

“The mother needs to be up front with their physician about any illegal drugs they are using,” Frei said. “We understand no one chooses to become an addict, it is a disease. We just want to help them help themselves.”

While the long-term effects on these infants are uncertain, studies have shown some developmental delays including difficulty concentrating in school, as well as a variety of behavioral issues.

The Superior Health Foundation has posted educational information about NAS and support resources at Educational information can also be obtained from the Marquette General Hospital’s Women’s and Children’s website,

Sylvia Stevens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 240.