Opiates and Babies

This is a repost from 2014 when my wife and I were involved in foster care with our local county Department of Human Services. I noticed the article I linked to when I first wrote it is no longer there. I’m also happy to show that if you google “babies born on opiates” there are several things published in the past year that are seeking to understand and provide best practices for babies born in this situation.

Original Post:

I’ve seen the article twice in the past week and it’s evoked several several emotions in me. What are those emotions? I’m not so sure. Perhaps it’s that feeling you get then someone tells you a story, about yourself, only they don’t know they are telling you a story about your self. Somehow through the grapevine you told a story, that was told by another and then eventually go around to someone else who is now telling you. Details have been changed, facts shifter slightly but enough to matter and now you’re hearing it all over gain.

Or perhaps the feeling of someone describing an experience about a particular topic that you’ve lived. they share their experience and while their experience isn’t wrong, it’s nothing like yours and so then you feel compelled to tell your story not out of a need to correct the original but perhaps to shine different light in different dark places of the situation. After all that’s what stories do- shed light, share perspective.

On opiates and babies.

December of 2014 we received a call froms our county DSS regarding a opiate addicted baby that was born October 1. Due to his extreme addiction, inability to wean, and perhaps some other factors we’ll never quite know for sure. So on December 11 we went to the hospital to meet our new foster baby.

He greeted us with a scream. He was in-between morphine doses and his body was racked with pain. You could tell because he was inconsolable. I envisioned those civil war movies where the doctor had to remove a bullet with no painkillers and the soldier was writhing in pain. Only this wasn’t a grown man writing in pain it was a 6lb baby boy with deep blue eyes and reddish blonde hair.

The NICU nurses updated us the best they could. They told us his feeding patters, what they knew he liked and disliked, the normal tips and tricks a new mom might know when passing her baby on to a babysitter for the first time. They told us he liked thick formula, he liked to listen to the TV when they weren’t able to be in the room with him and he liked being in motion while he slept. They told us he hated taking baths, things on his head and not being swaddled while he slept. They were busy, they had lots of other babies to take care of, including other opiate addicted babies but it was clear that they loved this baby boy.

They explained to us that our new baby boy wasn’t weaning like most babies. Normally it’s a fast process where they can quickly switch the baby to morphine at birth and then rapidly wean the baby from the toxic drugs. In 6-8 weeks the baby is drug free and able to begin life like a baby deserves to be.

They tried to explain then but it was something that I had to learn over the next 6 months and counting. What I learned is this. With opiates and opiate addiction there is no “normal” when trying to wean baby off drugs. The fact of the matter this is a new problem our society is having to deal with. Likely it’s not the rise in heroin addiction that is causing the epidemic of opiate addicted babies (I’m not sure there is a rise in heroin addiction) but rather the rise in pain medication addiction and then the subsequent government issued methadone.

I don’t think many medical professionals want to admit this but the treatment of opiate addicted babies is still in the trial phase and each case they have is a trial and a potential error. From what I’ve learned there are two schools of thought the first being a rapid detox period where morphine is used and then weaned off of. The second school of thought is to use methadone and make the wean longer and less dramatic. Research backs both approaches…or neither depending on how you look at it. Essentially there is no pattern to trust, no proven method. One nurse who specializes in opiate addicted babies said “Methadone babies are the crack babies of the mid twenty teens.” A trusted pediatrician friend confessed “they didn’t teach us about this in medical school because it didn’t really exist then.”

A quick detox is less traumatic short term but there are some potential long term effects that involve neurological development. Some of these side effects are just now showing up in babies that are now 5 years old and entering school. The longer detox is well…long, and painful and not enjoyable for either baby or caregiver.

On May 30 of this year we celebrated something i never thought we’d celebrate. After 8 months of opiate addiction our beautiful foster baby is now free from drugs. His wean was long and painful and I thought it would never end. But now he’s free and I’m damn proud of that fact.

It’s hard to define his progress since he’s off the methadone. The easiest way to say it is- now he’s acting like a regular baby. He smiles when he catches my eye from across the room. He reaches up or out to be held. His biggest development is that the snuggles into your body for comfort, something he didn’t do for nearly 8 months of his life. Before nothing would soothe him now the normal things do like his pacifier, his blanket, a person’s presence or a toy to distract him.

We’re not sure how much longer we’ll have this little guy with us. Probably a few more months. Maybe longer. But we’re looking forward to the time with him, we pray his future is bright.

If you’re one of those people that wants to take action. Do it. If you’re one of those people that needs to take action let me tell you the type of people that helped us on the journey.

The nurses- nurses have been our best resources and our biggest cheerleaders and advocates. My wife actually has his primary NICU nurse in her cell phone and she sends her a picture from time to time. She was the first one to hold the beautiful baby boy between dosages and she held him through his screaming and his agony. He will never remember her but he will always be impacted by the love she had for him.

Baby holders- also a relationship that began at the hospital our baby had sweet people that would come and hold him when the nurses couldn’t. Their sweet voice took the place of the tv that would keep him company. Again, he’ll never remember their names and we were never able to thank them but he will alway be impacted by their love.

Friends- we have a great support system and in that system some great friends that would call and say “when can I watch the baby” we would warn them “he pretty much screams non stop when he’s not asleep” and they would say “that’s ok bring him anyway”.

There were other people, supportive family, kind words from strangers, meals from friends, and no doubt a hundred other things I’m forgetting.

I’m glad that chapter is behind us and to be completely honest it’s not something I want to experience again but like most of life’s hard experiences I would have never chosen it for myself but I’m certain it was beneficial for me to endure.

I was prompted to repost this article because my wife is still in touch with this child’s (new) mother and she reached out the other day to ask if I still had it anywhere. I couldn’t find it, she wound up finding it in her email and then I found it on my evernote. Go figure.

She was a family member to this child and now she is his mother! He’s doing so well. The pictures and videos I see show a brave and courageous little boy that loves his brothers and his mom and day. He looks like quite a character and I think that’s pretty perfect for this awesome little boy.