Women & Infants Sees Surge In Opioid-Addicted Newborns

Apr 2, 2014

The rising number of Rhode Islanders struggling with an addiction to prescription painkillers and heroin has brought an increase in babies born addicted to these substances. And Women & Infants Hospital is treating a growing number of them.

These newborns are both being treated for withdrawal from opioids in a nursery at Women & Infants. They've been swaddled tightly to help them feel safe and calm, and these "swings" rock them gently from side to side.
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

When adults stop taking opiates like OxyContin or heroin, they go into withdrawal. Babies who have been exposed to these kinds of drugs in the womb can also go into withdrawal, and the effects range from difficulty feeding and excessive crying to convulsions and diarrhea. At Women & Infants, newborn nursery medical director Dr. Marcia VanVleet says that, five or six years ago, the hospital saw maybe 60 or so exposed babies a year. In the first 10 months of last year, those numbers shot up.

“We’re looking at at least a two to three-fold increase," said VanVleet. "And that’s what we’ve been seeing across the nation as well."

VanVleet says that nationwide hospital discharge data shows a fivefold increase in the number of mothers who have admitted to taking opioids – whether they were prescription painkillers or illicit drugs like heroin. And that’s led to a growing number of babies who need medical treatment for withdrawal from those drugs.

The hospital is also participating in a study that researchers hope will help them understand more about how to treat babies who are born addicted to opioids like OxyContin and heroin. The question researchers hope to answer is whether morphine or methadone are more effective at helping babies through  withdrawal. The study will also follow these children for two years - something VanVleet says hasn't been before. The study's funding comes from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.