Shortly after birth, James, who is now 1, was diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome and given small doses of morphine to get him through the withdrawal. Here, James works with occupational therapist Victoria Peake at MGH’s Newborn Developmental Follow-Up Clinic, as Dr. Leslie Kerzner, left, and James’ adoptive mother, Kristen Fontaine, center, look on. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Massachusetts hospitals are seeing evidence that the opioid epidemic is affecting the next generation, with an increasing number of babies being born exposed to drugs.
The most recent state hospital data suggest that the rate of drug-dependent newborns has skyrocketed to about 16 in every 1,000 births — about three times the national average.
At Massachusetts General Hospital, doctors started following drug-exposed babies about three years ago. Dr. Leslie Kerzner, director of the Newborn Developmental Follow-Up Clinic at MGH, tracks the babies until age 2. She says the vast majority of infants exposed to drugs in utero will experience withdrawal symptoms similar to those of an adult going through withdrawal. (Click here for a video from MGH of an infant displaying symptoms of withdrawal.)
“A baby going through withdrawal is very disorganized,” Kerzner explained. “They go from state to state, from alert awake to crying, you know, it’s like zero to 60 in just a couple of seconds. They have increased muscle tone, a high-pitched cry. They’re not easy to soothe. They may be throwing up, have diarrhea, mottled skin. They are not healthy looking.”
Most of the moms that gave birth to exposed babies at MGH in the past year were white, their median age was about 30. More than 30 percent of the moms were prescribed opioids for chronic pain. Close to 90 percent of the pregnancies were not planned.
One of those babies was 1-year-old James. Shortly after birth he was diagnosed with what’s called neonatal abstinence syndrome and given small doses of morphine and another drug to get him through the withdrawal.
James crawls after a rubber duck during a recent checkup at the Newborn Developmental Follow-Up Clinic at MGH. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
“James did go through neonatal abstinence syndrome, requiring medical therapy with both morphine and phenobarbital — which is not unusual when a baby might have been exposed to other things,” Kerzner said. “Many of the moms are poly-substance users.”
Doctors knew that James had been exposed to methadone. Kristen Fontaine and her husband got involved when they were contacted by a social worker caring for the infant. They were looking to adopt and came to see James at MGH’s special care nursery.