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The opioid crisis's youngest victims

Opioid use affects babies before they're born

  • 1 min to read

Over half of infants exposed to opioids prenatally suffer from withdrawal symptoms after birth, truly making them the youngest victims of a national opioid crisis that has taken its toll locally.

Cuddle Program

St.Vincent Kokomo volunteer Judy Morris cuddles a baby as part of the St. Vincent Cuddle Program. Image submitted


“Babies born to women who use opioids during pregnancy are at increased risk for poor fetal growth, preterm birth, congenital heart defects and problems with brain and spinal development,” states a report from the Indiana Youth Institute.

The report continues, saying infants that experience withdrawal symptoms suffer from neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS).

“During pregnancy, opioids and other substances are passed along to the baby, who may become dependent on opioids along with the mother,” states the report. “Once the baby is born, withdrawal symptoms occur as the opioids are slowly cleared from the baby’s system.”

Cheryl Parrott, registered nurse and lactation consultant with St. Vincent Kokomo said the babies feel the physical effects of withdrawal, often causing them to act more irritable than other babies. Other symptoms include upset stomach, temperature instability and difficulty eating.

When the babies cry, Parrott said their voices seem to be a higher pitch than normal, usually because their stomachs are upset. “It’s like their nerves are on end,” she said.

Parrott couldn’t speak to any particular pattern on how many babies the hospital sees with NAS, but said when looking back three years ago, if they saw 10 babies, it would be a surprisingly high number. Last year, that number was easily doubled.

Symptoms start when the baby is around 3 days old, and they tend to go through the worst withdrawal symptoms within 30 days.

Parrott said the care these babies receive isn’t pharmacological. In fact the treatment they receive at St. Vincent is pretty simple: Trained volunteers hold and cuddle the babies, who do well with skin-to-skin contact.

“They literally hold and comfort these babies when the mother can’t be here, because our primary goal is for the mother to be that support person,” said Parrott, who also acknowledged that frequently mothers of these children don’t have a strong support system that allows her to stay in the hospital with her baby. The baby often needs to stay in the hospital longer than the mother, leaving it in the hands, quite literally, of the volunteers.

The best case scenario is for the baby to stay with the mother. Breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact is encouraged.

While the long-term complications of NAS remain a mystery, the Indiana Youth Institute said in a report that early research indicates negative effects may engulf “children’s growth, behavior, cognitive development, language abilities and academic achievement.”

Cody Neuenschwander can be reached at 765-454-8570 or by email at

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