In Tennessee, the rate of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) has increased more than 1,700 percent since 1999, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.
NAS is a condition in which a baby has withdrawal symptoms after being exposed to medications or illicit drugs before birth. NAS’s effects range from several days of withdrawal to death.
Coffee County has seen a significant number of NAS cases, according to Sheila Barrera, coordinator for the Coffee County Safe Baby Court, one of the programs under the umbrella of Coffee County Drug Court Foundation.
Safe baby court helps individuals with addiction and mental issues by offering assistance to their families.
“NAS occurs when the mother has been using drugs during her pregnancy – the babies are born addicted,” Barrera said.
In some instances, the withdrawal symptoms last for a few days, while in others, the consequences may be much worse.
“Sometimes, it can result in late miscarriage or death after the baby is born, if the withdrawal is severe,” Barrera said. “There have been cases when women have used during the whole pregnancy and the babies are born and have a couple of days of withdrawal. And there have been cases when women have used only occasionally and the result is death.”
If a woman is pregnant and addicted, she needs to ask for help, said Barrera.
“The main thing she needs to do is be honest with her obstetrician,” Barrera said. “There are things obstetricians can do to help.”
Treatment options during pregnancy differ, depending on the drugs the individual has been abusing.
“With amphetamines, the women just need to be off the medication,” Barrera said.
For women addicted to opioids, the approach may be different.
Some physicians use Subutex, also known as buprenorphine, for women who are pregnant and addicted, and there have been positive results, said Barrera. Subutex was developed as a long-term medication for those with opioid addiction.
“Babies that are born to women that use Subutex – safely and under a doctor’s care – do very well,” Barrera said.
Barrera encouraged individuals who are addicted to seek help.
“I just really want to encourage women to be honest with their physician – there is help,” she said. “When babies are born, infants and mothers are tested for drugs, which can lead to the mother losing her child. So if they are honest from the beginning and get help, that can be prevented.”
In Coffee County, the problem has intensified over the last several years.
“The opioid crisis here in Coffee County is almost epidemic, so we have seen more cases of NAS,” Barrera said.
While professionals battling addiction issues are aware of the short-term effects of NAS, the long-term problems associated with NAS are less known.
“The children may go on to have problems later in life, with education or not meeting milestones as quick as other babies,” Barrera said.
Tennessee Department of Health Medical Epidemiologist Mary-Margaret Fill has completed research on the potential impact of NAS on children.
Developmental delay and speech impairment were the most common educational disabilities identified among children with a history of NAS.
The study found that children born with NAS are more likely to be referred for evaluation of an educational disability, to meet criteria for an educational disability and to receive special education therapies or services than children without NAS.
Fill analyzed data for more than 7,000 Tennessee children between ages 3 and 8 to learn if the children with NAS require more educational assistance than children without the condition.
The study, titled “Educational Disabilities among Children Born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome”, was published in the September issue of “Pediatrics” – the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics - and is the first research to link NAS to educational disabilities.
Ask for help
Substance abuse is a treatable and preventable disease. If you or someone you know suffers from drug addiction, seek help.
For more information, call the drug court at 931- 723-3051.
For immediate help for anyone suffering from a substance abuse disorder, call the Tennessee REDLINE at 1-800-889-9789. Visit www.taadas.org/our-programs-and-services/redline for more information.
Other local organizations offering support for addition include Bradford Health Services at 931-728-4442; and Centerstone in Tullahoma at 931-461-1300.
Elena Cawley may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.