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Rise in Mothers Addicted to Opioids, More Newborns Going Through Withdrawal

Mar 12, 2015

One doctor says behavioral or occupational therapy will be needed for a quarter of these babies once they reach two years of age.

Massachusetts doctors have seen an increase in the number of pregnant women addicted to opiates. Dr. Rachana Singh from Baystate Children’s Hospital in Springfield has said the number of babies withdrawing from opioids in their NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) has tripled since 2012. 

Last year, doctors delivered about 110 babies born dependent on opioids.

"When that umbilical cord is clamped," said Singh, "the baby’s not getting any more medication. And just like anybody else, you start feeling the need for the medication, because the body is used to it."

Babies can be cranky or irritable, Singh said, and it’s likely behavioral or occupational therapy will be needed for a quarter of these babies once they reach two years of age.

The push among 200 pediatricians, social workers, and OB/GYNs at a conference in Holyoke, Mass., is to get opioid using pregnant women into some kind of treatment before they deliver -- women like Westfield, Massachusetts native Erica Asselin, who says her life was falling apart six years ago. She began using heroin, and then found out she was three months pregnant. She had already lost custody of two children, and she was determined to get clean and not lose this one.

"I was working a program, and yet I still lost custody of my child."
Erica Asselin

She immediately got herself to a methadone clinic and stayed on the addiction treatment drug through her pregnancy. But after her baby was born, the state took custody.

“Here I was a mom on a prescription I was being monitored with, I was working a program, and yet I still lost custody of my child,”  said Asselin.

The day after she gave birth she went to court. The judge disagreed with the state’s decision, and to Asselin’s surprise and delight, he gave her a chance to do right by her child.

Asselin is now educating doctors and social workers about what it means to be on methadone or other addiction treatment drugs like suboxone. She is also coaching mothers, who six years ago were like her, how to ease the withdrawal discomfort their newborns may experience.

This report was originally published by New England Public Radio.