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Springfield Hospital Helping To Find Best Treatments For Opioid-Exposed Babies


A western Massachusetts hospital is taking part in a national study to help determine the best treatments for the youngest victims of the opioid addiction crisis.

The number of newborns who have been exposed to opioids has skyrocketed in Massachusetts, going from three births out of 1,000 a decade ago to more than 17 per 1,000 births – more than triple the national rate.

Infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, as it is known, typically experience difficultly feeding, diarrhea, irritability, tremors, and occasionally seizures.  

" I wasn't really expecting it to be quite as awful as it was," said a mom, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Christina.  She had abused prescription painkillers before she gave birth to her daughter two years ago at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield.

" I was terrified," she said.  "I felt very guilty, I still feel very guilty."

In 2009, Baystate treated 20 newborns for problems that came from being exposed to opioids. Last year, the number of cases of neonatal abstinence syndrome was 112, according to Dr. Jeffrey Shenberger, the hospital’s Chief of Newborn Medicine.

" This is a regional center for caring for infants with neonatal abstinence," he explained.

Baystate is one of nine hospitals taking part in a 3-year National Institutes of Health-funded trial study to determine which of two medications – morphine or methadone – is best for easing the suffering the babies experience as they go through withdrawal.

" So despite the increase across the country in the number of infants born exposed to opioids, we really don't have any firm evidence on the best way to treat it," said Shenberger. " This is the first trial on a large scale looking at which of the two primary medications are potentially better."

Christina, who now advocates for opioid-addicted mothers and their newborns, says as part of the therapy hospitals should keep baby and mother together as much as possible.

" The couple of times I would take a few hours off, she would always tank. I would leave a happy baby and return to a very sick baby," she said. " I saw that in her and in the babies around us as well."

Doctors also believe the babies get better faster if their mothers are present.  But, that can pose logistical problems for most hospitals, according to Shenberger.

" We are in the process of trying to develop a unit where we can keep the mother and infant together because these babies need holding, swaddling - just like any baby does.  But it is difficult to do if the baby is in intensive care and the mother is being discharged," said Shenberger.

Hospitals are required to report to the state when a baby is born who has been exposed to drugs. That triggers an investigation by the Department of Children and Families that could result in the baby being placed in state custody.

Shenberger said the treatment strategy at Baystate is aimed at not only taking care of the babies, but keeping the family intact.

" It was not too long ago where the primary thinking was the baby should be taken away from the family, and I think ,for the most part ,that is not in the best interests of the baby and the family in general," he said.

The opioid abuse legislation signed earlier this year by Gov. Charlie Baker commits $3.5 million to help hospitals develop best practices for treating babies exposed to drugs and their mothers.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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