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Treating Opiate Dependent Babies

In the last decade doctors at Fletcher Allen Health Care have seen an increase in the number of babies born with opiate in their system.
BURLINGTON, Vt.- In the last decade doctors at Fletcher Allen Health Care have seen an increase in the number of babies born with opiate in their system.

Anne Johnston, a Neonatologist at Fletcher Allen, says these are babies who were exposed to drugs such as heroin or prescriptions in the womb.

“Probably the largest segment of the population that we see are women who are on opiate replacement therapy such as methadone or buprenorphine,” said Johnston.

At birth doctors look for the telltale signs of withdrawal, such as irritability, sleeplessness, an inability to feed, excessive sneezing or yawning, and tremors.

“There is no way to tell us whether we need to treat except for how significantly they present with the signs of withdrawal,” said Johnston.

Traditionally these infants are kept in the hospital and treated with morphine but Johnston says that could take months. So instead Fletcher Allen treats the babies with opiate replacement medicine such as methadone.

“Our average length of stay here in the hospital for babies who are treated is 7 days. So we actually get them out early but we have really very comprehensive wraparound services after,” said Johnston.

Those services include weekly visits after the baby is discharged and parents or legal guardians administer methadone at home.

“The parents themselves often bring up does my baby being on methadone mean my baby is more likely to be an addict, and i usually say they are more likely to be an addict because you are,” said Johnston.

Johnson says in the last two years the number of infants needing treatment has somewhat leveled off. She says in an average year doctors at Fletcher Allen treat 20-30 opiate addicting newborns. Johnston believes that is because more hospitals in Vermont now offer a similar type of treatment program.

“I think our numbers would have escalated more if that was not the case,” said Johnston.

Once treatment is complete Johnston says babies born opiate dependent more often than not lead normal lives.

Johnston says when a baby is born opiate dependent by law doctors are not required to contact the Department for Children and Families. But she says they carefully monitor the baby’s recovery and at any time if the doctors feel like the baby is in danger they will contact DCF.

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