Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome: A Preventable Disorder

In high school, Brittany Hudson loved to party with friends. Her constant experimenting with drugs eventually led to an addiction to painkillers. A few years later, she was pregnant but still regularly using opioids — particularly OxyContin.

After giving birth, she found out that her newborn daughter was dependent on opioids.

“I was shocked because she was with me in the hospital room for three days before she was taken from my custody,” Hudson told “I was crying and upset because I had no idea. I knew that I had used, but I was just shocked because she hadn’t been to NICU those first few days.”

Hudson’s daughter was diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome, a set of birth problems that occurs when a baby is exposed to opioids in the womb. Upon birth, newborn infants with the syndrome are dependent on painkillers such as oxycodone or heroin.

Facts and stats about neonatal abstinence syndrome:
  • Every 25 minutes, a baby is born dependent on opioids.
  • Opioids aren’t the only drugs associated with NAS. Use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, nicotine and benzodiazepines can also lead to neonatal abstinence syndrome.
  • Between 75 and 90 percent of babies exposed to opioids in the womb develop the syndrome.
  • Some symptoms of NAS can linger for four to six months.
  • The median length of stay for babies with NAS is between 13 and 19 days.

Babies with the syndrome experience intense withdrawal symptoms, including fever, high-pitched crying, poor feeding, trembling and seizures. These effects typically begin about 24 to 72 hours after birth and can last up to five days.

Research has indicated that babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome are more likely to perform poorly in school.

The syndrome has become increasingly common during the U.S. opioid epidemic. But it is preventable. And women who plan on getting pregnant in the future can take steps to avoid these pregnancy complications.

Women and Addiction

Opioid use among women is a growing problem in the United States. A 2017 report in the journal Women’s Health Issues found that about 5 percent of pregnant women in the United States reported nonmedical opioid use in the past year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 86 percent of pregnancies among women who use opioids are unintended.

Women progress from drug use to addiction faster than men. They develop the consequences of addiction more quickly and face an increased risk of visiting the emergency room for opioid abuse. After treatment, they are more likely to experience a relapse.

More facts about women and addiction:
  • Women often find it harder to quit using drugs.
  • Women are more likely to develop chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia.
  • Women are more likely to be prescribed painkillers. They receive them in higher doses and use them for longer periods of time.
  • Women who use drugs experience more physical complications to the heart and blood vessels.

Depression is also an issue among pregnant women. Between 14 and 23 percent of women experience symptoms of depression during pregnancy, according to the American Psychiatric Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. The mental health condition can contribute to opioid use.

Neonatal abstinence syndrome isn’t the only complication associated with addiction and pregnancy. Drug use during pregnancy puts the baby at risk for a range of problems, including slow growth, low birth weight and sudden infant death syndrome.

How to Avoid Dependency Before Pregnancy

Neonatal abstinence syndrome is preventable. It can be avoided if the mother stops using opioids before pregnancy, which ensures the baby will not develop the disorder. To prevent your baby from suffering from NAS, you must avoid drug dependence or seek treatment for addiction.

A number of strategies can be used to avoid dependence or addiction before pregnancy:
  • Take pain medications exactly as they are prescribed.
  • Identify other pain management options. For example, yoga helps alleviate pain in many women.
  • If you are dependent on opioids, attend a 12-step program such as Narcotics Anonymous or Heroin Anonymous.
  • If you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol, seek immediate help.

Addiction doesn’t make you a bad person. But if you have an opioid use disorder and want to get pregnant in the future, you need professional assistance. Rehab is the most effective way to overcome a substance use disorder.

At rehab, women can receive evidence-based addiction treatment that addresses their specific needs. You will have access to 24-hour support and assistance during the withdrawal phase and can participate in behavioral therapies that help you understand the underlying cause of your substance abuse problems.

Treatment and support can come from rehab, 12-step programs or recovery homes.

With the help of a halfway house, Hudson conquered her addiction problems. She has been sober since December 2015. Nearly a year later, she began working for Renaissance Recovery Group, a Tennessee-based facility that supports pregnant women and mothers battling addiction.

Her child is also doing well. Hudson’s oldest daughter has overcome neonatal abstinence syndrome and is thriving academically in kindergarten. Her second child, also born with NAS, is meeting all developmental milestones for her age.

Hudson knows that addiction can be defeated. And she wants women who struggle with a substance use disorder to know that too.

“Please get help now,” she said. “Even if you have to scream and shout, get help. Don’t wait until it’s too late.”

Medical Disclaimer: aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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