Dent: Mothers may be the best medicine for babies with opioid addiction, study finds


Below is an opinion column by Christina Dent.

As I stood next to a fountain at the Mississippi Agricultural Museum, the person I was chatting with mentioned an article I had just read.

This article describes a new approach to babies born opioid dependent due to maternal opioid effects. Rather than being separated from her mother and placed in a bright and bustling NICU before being taken to foster care, the baby spent time with her mother in a private, quiet, unstimulating hospital room.

Nurses taught mothers how to swaddle their babies and encourage them to practice skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding. Giving babies opioids to overcome withdrawal was a last resort. Mother was the main medicine. The results were astonishing. Babies overcame opioid withdrawal faster, used less opioid medications postnatally, and were discharged from the hospital several days earlier than other babies who received regular care.

This conversation took place in 2015, but I remember it so clearly as my heart raced and my blood pressure shot through the ceiling as my anger increased. Intense emotional experiences tend to be deeply engraved in our memories. My reaction was swift and strong. I countered that the article could not be true.

At that time, my husband and I were raising a baby who had been taken out of the mother’s custody because she had used drugs during her pregnancy. I had no data to support my anger, but the results of the article made me question whether foster care was really the best path forward for that precious baby’s health. As a foster mother who stays up all night with a newborn, it was inconceivable. I think it’s human nature to reflexively shut up when we hear an idea that contradicts what we’re investing in.

But I keep hearing about this bonding approach to opioid-dependent newborns, and last week the National Institutes of Health released a study of 1,305 infants in 26 US hospitals. “Eat, Sleep, Console” (ESC) method.

In 2015, it was studied in parallel with the Finnegan Neonatal Abstinence Scoring Tool (FNAST), which has been in use for 50 years.

The result is the same as what I heard eight years ago. Neonates who underwent the ESC approach for opioid dependence in this study were ready to be discharged 6 days earlier than those whose care decisions were made using FNAST. Also, an ESC baby was 63% less likely to receive opioids as part of postnatal care. For many babies, what they needed most was their mother.

On the one hand, we have a promising new approach for opioid-dependent neonates. Meanwhile, some jurisdictions across the country have arrested women for using drugs while pregnant. To those who support the punitive approach and think they genuinely believe that scaring the mother will help the baby, I give room for doubt.But is prosecution or prenatal care the best way for mothers to protect the life and health of their struggling fetuses?

with addiction?

A response that feels good is not the same as a response that produces a good result. If a woman fears that a doctor’s visit will put her in jail, her mother will stay away from the doctor for as long as possible. Worse, the likely impact of these prosecutions on the unborn child appears to motivate women struggling with addiction to abort. If she gives birth, she could go to jail. If they abort, they don’t. What a tragedy!

It took me a while to get over my initial anger at what felt like a threat to my role as a foster parent. Change is hard, but by celebrating motherhood this weekend, we can open up avenues of help for addiction-stricken mothers instead of handcuffs.

Mothers may be the best medicine if they want their babies born opioid dependent to have the best chance of recovery and less suffering. And if we want to give mothers the best chance of being that medicine, approaching mothers’ addiction from a medical, not criminal justice, perspective is the best way to help mothers and babies.

— Article credit: Christina Dent, Magnolia Tribune —



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