Tennessee has 3x average rate of babies born addicted to drugs

(Photo: WKRN)
(Photo: WKRN)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Every 25 minutes, a baby is born in the United States with an opioid addiction.

Neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS, occurs when an infant has been exposed to an opioid in utero.

There are a significant number of cases of NAS in Middle Tennessee, according to Neonatologist Dr. Stephen Patrick with Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“The area that we live in here in Tennessee has a rate of NAS that’s about three times the national average,” he told News 2.

Dr. Patrick is one of the nation’s top researchers in neonatal abstinence syndrome and describes NAS as a colicky baby times five.

“Infants with NAS are fussy. They can be inconsolable, have difficulty sleeping, they can have feeding problems that sometimes are severe enough to require a feeding tube, they’re more likely to have breathing problems as well, and less commonly they can also have seizures,” he explained.

Stephen Patrick (Photo: WKRN)
Stephen Patrick (Photo: WKRN)

The Vanderbilt’s NICU is tasked with treating newborns who suffer from drug withdrawal.

The ultimate goal for doctors and nurses is to help get both mom and baby healthy so they can stay together.

“For many of these infants, they’re not severely sick, and they don’t always require ICU care. So how can we create systems of care to keep mom and baby together? So there’s someone there to console that baby and to keep families together and to promote breastfeeding when it’s appropriate,” Dr. Patrick explained.

NICU staff leader Caitlin Pugh specializes in caring for these babies. She started a NAS taskforce which set up a standardized scoring system to track the baby’s progress.

The taskforce also provides emotional support for the nurses involved.

“Sometimes the struggle is you look at this new born baby and it looks fine, so that’s not necessarily the typical NICU patient,” Pugh said.

(Photo: WKRN)
(Photo: WKRN)

She told News 2 that dealing with the social interaction happening with the baby and mother is vital.

“The mom is maybe active in this addiction or may be on the pathway to getting clean and working a program. We have to kind of help that bond between that mom and baby happen, and that’s a lot of what we’re doing,” explained Pugh.

With a growing number of NAS cases here in Tennessee, Pugh and her team are busy. She points out that complete treatment is a true team effort.

“It’s not just the nurses; it’s so many people–Social workers identifying resources and just everybody on the team; case managers; and doctors. We all work so hard to set up the families for success, so when they get to go home it’s just a success for all of us. It’s awesome,” she told News 2.
Dr. Patrick believes a solution to lowering NAS cases begins with a comprehensive public health approach.

A significant piece to that approach is bolstering resources for women who struggle to find access to treatment for opioid use while pregnant.

Click here for more on the opioid crisis in Tennessee.