Beyond birth in the opioid crisis: What’s next for children born exposed to drugs

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HARTFORD -- The number of people suffering from opioid addiction continues to rise statewide, causing the number of infants born dependent on the drugs to also climb.

In a recent report by the U.S. Surgeon General, he states, “addiction is not a character flaw – it is a chronic illness that we must approach with the same skill and compassion with which we approach heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.” Like any illness, there are far reaching impacts of opioid addiction.

FOX 61’s Faces of the Opioid Crisis series continues as it takes a deeper look into how a whole new generation is affected.

Infants exposed to prescription pain medication, heroin, or other opioids such as methadone, while in their mother’s womb, are at risk for developing a drug withdrawal, which is called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS. In 2014, in Connecticut 384 infants were born with NAS, according to the state’s Department of Public Health.

“The challenge at the bedside really is trying to nurture and guide the baby through their withdrawal,” said Terri Miffitt, a nurse at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Saint Francis Hospital.

She says infants going through withdrawals are often treated with morphine for their symptoms, which can include extreme irritability, difficulty eating, lack of sleep, or tremors. For some, however, the effects of the opioid exposure does not end when the infant leaves the hospital.

“You’ve got tremendous issues in terms of psychological development, cognitive development, social development, if they don’t get the support they need and if the parent continues to be using drugs,” said Dr. J. Craig Allen, Medical Director at Rushford, an addiction and mental health service.

He explained there is little research on the long term effects of children who were born dependent on opioid substances, but that there are some known physical and psychological risks.

“If a child has been exposed to opioids on the physical side there appears to be a greater risk of having ear infections,” Dr. Allen said. He explained the risk there is, “When a child develops a lot of ear infections early on it can greatly impact your speech development which can impact your social skill development and your engagement with your community.”
He recommends parents or guardians of a child who had NAS earlier in life ask their pediatrician for early hearing screenings.

Dr. Allen says, more importantly, as the child grows up, his or her emotional and mental well-being will depend heavily on whether the mother is getting appropriate services for her own addiction. This is one of the key reasons social services is often brought into the situation, early on, to help.

“This starts from when they’re in the NICU, staying engaged with a parent who is nurturing, who is emotionally present,” Dr. Allen explains. He went on to say, “The rates of domestic violence and potentially child abuse are significantly increased in someone who is not engaged in treatment and doesn’t continue to be in treatment and monitored closely.”

He strongly recommends mothers with an addiction to seek medical and psychological support, suggesting Medication Assisted Treatment as an option. He explains this kind of treatment allows the mother to eliminate her own withdrawal symptoms, allowing room for mother-child bonding that is critical to the child’s development.

Dr. Allen also said, even though it can be very difficult to do, it’s also extremely important for parents to be up front with educators about the child’s history with NAS.

“I think they’ll be a day when it can be openly shared with the educational system as well, because that’s a very, very, very important component of a child’s development,” Dr. Allen said.

Opioids are man-made narcotics that come in the form of prescription pain medication. Heroin is an illegal opioid.

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