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Across the state of Florida, thousands of newborns each year come into the world struggling with the opiate addiction of their mothers. Getting through the withdrawal process can be fairly simple for some and a months-long grueling process for others. In all cases, however, the result is excruciating withdrawal symptoms and 24-hour care to ensure the child’s survival, and often physical, mental, and emotional developmental difficulties throughout childhood as well.
In the Tampa Bay area, the number of babies born addicted to opiates has risen quickly in the past few years. Between 2011 and 2013, there were more than 4,300 babies born addicted to opiates across the state of Florida, and about one-third of these babies were born in the Tampa Bay area. Counties with the highest numbers of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome included:
It is one of the many devastating effects of untreated opiate addiction, and one which strikes the most innocent.
It is rarely the case that a woman who is living with an opiate addiction decides to get pregnant despite the consequences to the child. More often, a woman living with an active addiction accidentally gets pregnant and then is suddenly faced with how best to handle the situation.
It is not an easy question to answer. Unfortunately, immediate cessation of all opiate drugs will trigger a detox syndrome that can cause spontaneous miscarriage, so it is not safe during pregnancy. In order to manage the addiction and avoid the risks of using street drugs or overdosing, most women will begin a methadone maintenance program. An opiate drug, methadone is still an addictive substance, and in terms of the baby’s experience, it still means being born with an addiction.
There is something to be said for stabilization during pregnancy. Though methadone does not remove the risk of addiction for the baby, it does provide the mother with time to begin the process of recovery, so when the baby is born, she is more ready to handle the responsibility of parenthood and more likely to be well on her way to a life of recovery.
Without the proper support and treatment, mothers who go on methadone to support their baby will usually return to active addiction once the baby is born and the source of methadone is gone. Addiction is more than just managing cravings and staving off withdrawal symptoms; it is about escape and having no other coping mechanisms for mental health issues, trauma, and stress. Having a baby only increases the stress level, and without treatment, many mothers return to their old behaviors, not knowing any other way to cope.
Helping the mother to become stronger in recovery, providing ongoing access to services, and intensive follow-up support once the baby is born are critical parts of helping both mother and child to heal. It starts with methadone maintenance during pregnancy and continues with therapeutic intervention, social services, and life skills support for the long-term.
Though methadone maintenance is not a perfect solution, it is the only method available to manage the problem effectively. As we look for a better way to help mother and child get healthy when pregnancy occurs during opiate addiction, we must also seek out ways to lower the rates of addiction overall. Improving outreach and education in the Tampa Bay area will serve that end, as will increasing access to treatment for those who are struggling with addiction before pregnancy occurs.
The goal too must be to help all families that are struggling due to an addiction. Children at any age, whether or not they were born addicted to opiates, suffer when a parent is struggling with an ongoing substance use disorder. Increasing services for these families and working to identify those in need of assistance with the goal of getting them help as early as possible is the best way to increase the number of healthy babies born to recovering parents and make sure that these children – and families – start strong.