“Very tough:” Doctors are seeing more opioid-addicted newborns amid nationwide epidemic

SAN DIEGO, California — As America’s addiction to painkillers reaches epidemic levels, the drugs continue to affect the smallest and most vulnerable residents — newborns.

More hospitals are reporting cases of babies born addicted to opioids.

“Structurally, these babies may look normal, but we don’t know the long-term effects,” said Dr. Sean Daneshmand.

Dr. Daneshmaud is a maternal fetal medicine specialist who works with high-risk pregnancies at Sharp Mary Birch Hospital. He started the non-profit Miracle Babies in 2009 that provides family assistance to those with children in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

“Women are usually very honest in pregnancy. Every mom, for the most part, wants to do the best for their child,” Dr. Daneshmand said. “If there`s a time when someone wants to stop drug use, it’s during this time.

Of the 9,200 babies born at Mary Birch in 2016, roughly one in five ended up in the NICU. They are admitted for a variety of issues including being what’s called a “pos-tox baby” or baby born addicted to drugs.

“We are seeing more withdrawal symptoms in babies in our hospital,” said Dr. David Kaegi, a neonatologist at Mary Birch.

The babies are withdrawing from both illegal drugs like methamphetamine, which is the most prevalent, and legal ones like painkillers OxyContin and Vicodin, the doctors said.

Doctors said babies born with drugs in their system are typically fussy during their first 24-hours in the NICU — similar to a normal newborn. After that, they start to show symptoms of withdrawal.

Doctors say the cry of an opioid-addicted baby is different, similar to constant blood-curdling screams.

Their little bodies are also so physically stressed, a simple act like changing a diaper or taking a temperature can be overstimulating for them.

“Going cold turkey with opioids is not a smart thing and can have severe symptoms that can harm the baby, including a lack of eating and being dehydrated from diarrhea,” said Dr. Kaegi. “You need the treat the child with what they’re withdrawing from.”

The treatment is not all that unlike an adult addict. Doctors will administer Methadone, and that can last for anywhere from a week to several weeks.

Often times, Child Protective Services could get involved, and a mom could lose custody of her child for a time, until she’s clean.

After that, in San Diego County, there are a handful of treatment centers that accept women and their children, including the McAlister Institute in El Cajon.

“You love your child, but the drugs just ruin it for you,” said Jeanne McAlister, founder of the center.

McAlister, 85, started the treatment center 40 years ago. She became a mother at 16 and was an alcoholic with nowhere to go.

Her Kiva Learning Center, at the McAlister Institute, currently has 95 women and 17 children. She found women have a much higher likelihood to get clean, when their children are with them in treatment.

“It’s not our fault that we’re addicted. I didn’t wake up and say ‘I want to be a drug addict.’ They didn’t either,” said McAlister. “You don’t know you’re an addict until you take the drug.”

The CDC has been working on raising awareness about addiction and trying to destigmatize treatment. Doctors say people need to treat addiction like a disease, no different than diabetes or high blood pressure. Opioid addiction is especially difficult to kick, which is why many recovery centers often have to use drugs in conjunction with counseling to help people reach sobriety.

Scientists have found powerful prescription drugs like OxyContin can rewire a brain in just 30 days, which is typically the length of an average prescription. It can also take up to two years of consistent treatment to rewire the brain back to not being addicted.

“As a physician and as a human being, I think it’s always very tough,” Dr. Daneshmand said, “We see women, regardless of where they’re from, their socio-economic background, their religious beliefs, their political views, they all love children the same way.”

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