A nurse wraps a 4-week old baby girl in a swaddling cloth, trying to comfort her as her tiny feet shake, her little hands clench as she’s gasping for air.
Like more than 130,000 other children born in the United States in the last decade, this baby entered the world hooked on drugs, a dependency inherited from a mother battling an addiction.
The baby is suffering a form of newborn dependency called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). NAS occurs when a pregnant woman takes addictive drugs during the pregnancy. During the pregnancy, the baby becomes addicted along with the mother and depends on in after birth.
Dr. Jennifer Bragg, neonatologist and director at the Mount Sinai NICU Follow-Up Clinic in New York City, has been working closely with this baby and many others that suffer through NAS in New York.
Dr. Bragg explains that this is one of the severe cases, having a mother that’s addicted to both heroin and tobacco. In the baby’s first month in life, she has been going through withdrawals making her tremble, wail and sometimes gasping for breath.
“She’s been given morphine to get the withdrawals under control and she’s having trouble eating and sleeping,” Dr. Bragg told Metro.
Scenes like this play out every day in hospitals across the country, as increasing numbers of women of childbearing age struggle with opioid addiction. Nationally, the rate of American children born with NAS has quadrupled over the past 15 years and a child is now born with the disease every 20 minutes in the U.S according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Babies born with NAS in New York City
Dr. Jennifer Bragg at the Mount Sinai NICU follow-up clinic.
Dr. Bragg has noticed a dramatic increase of babies being born with NAS the last five years in New York City and urges that it needs to be a priority.
“Our work with NAS babies has been more extended and needed here in New York City in the recent years due to the opioid epidemic.”
At the NICU Follow-Up clinic in New York City, they work closely with the NAS babies since they need special care and are difficult to handle. Dr.Bragg explains that the babies can have a wide range of different symptoms and is extremely vulnerable. They don’t do well with a lot of light, a lot of loud noises and don’t like to be touched so the doctors try to help them with as little handling as possible.
“The key is in preventable care and to support these families throughout the pregnancy,” Dr. Bragg said. “The more we can support the family structure, the better the outcomes will be. “
The prognosis for babies born with NAS is still quite unknown which is worrying health officials.
“I know that the long-term risks for a baby born with NAS are definitely multi-factorial,” Dr. Bragg said.
Children with NAS may experience developmental delays or attention problems later in life. Research by The University Of Tennessee has found that children with NAS are more likely to end up in the foster care system.
New York, like many other states, is suffering the consequences of the ongoing opioid-epidemic that has taken many lives. Dr.Bragg believes that babies born with NAS are a major issue and that it’s her job as a doctor to give these babies and their families support.
“To watch a baby that is going through withdrawals and suffers is heartbreaking,” Dr. Bragg said. “No baby should be going through that.”