Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome: The Facts

Neonatal abstinence syndrome results when a fetus develops an addiction to opiates. If a mother abuses heroin, oxycodone or other opiate drugs, these drugs pass through the placenta and into the baby's system. When the baby is born and the drug is no longer available, withdrawal symptoms set in as early as one to three days after birth, or up to ten days later, according to Stanford Children's Health.

Symptoms of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

The symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome may vary, depending on the type of opiate the mother was using, the dosages, the length of time she'd been abusing it and whether the baby was born prematurely, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Symptoms can last anywhere from a week to six months, and may include:

  • Blotchy skin
  • High-pitched crying
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Elevated respiration rate
  • Poor feeding
  • Problems gaining weight
  • Sleep problems
  • Increased muscle tone
  • Hyperactive reflexes
  • Seizures
  • Tremors

Diagnosing and Treating Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

Other conditions can cause symptoms similar to neonatal abstinence syndrome. Tests may be administered to determine if the baby’s symptoms are caused by opiate withdrawal, including a toxicology screen of the baby's first bowel movement or a urine test.

Treatment depends on the type of drug involved, the infant's overall health, and whether the baby was carried to term. The newborn will be carefully observed for signs of withdrawal and problems with feeding or gaining weight. An IV may be used to replace fluids if vomiting or diarrhea occur, and the baby may be given a high-calorie formula if there are problems with weight gain.

Complications of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

In addition to symptoms of withdrawal, a baby born to a mother who used opiates during pregnancy may have birth defects, a small head circumference and problems with development or behavior. The baby may also be at an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome.

What You Can Do

If you're pregnant and addicted to opiates, a high-quality treatment program focused on women can help you get your life back on track. Since withdrawal during pregnancy often leads to poor outcomes for the baby, particularly in the first and third trimester, methadone and buprenorphine are typically used for maintenance to prevent withdrawal, according to an article published in the The Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

A variety of traditional and alternative therapies will then be used to help you address the complex issues underlying the addiction to help you restore your physical and mental health and help prepare you for the next phase in your life.

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