The National Institute of Drug Abuse has released a report stating that every fifteen minutes a baby is born suffering from opiod withdrawal. It is affecting millions of babies nationwide and it’s becoming a major epidemic.
Newborns born to mothers suffering from addiction are ending up in Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), which is an ICU for infants, and they’re experiencing the pains of withdrawal within minutes of entering our world.
Hospitals across the United States have begun receiving volunteer assistance in the form of ‘baby cuddlers’. These are regular citizens who rock the infants to sleep and provide the necessary human connection and love, which allows newborns to gain a sense of comfort and peace.
So far cuddler programs have transitioned to actual part-time jobs in the states of Iowa, Virginia, and Massachusetts, as well as the city of San Antonio in Texas, in order to help combat the crisis. In fact The University Hospital in Bexar County, San Antonio, has the highest number of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), out of the entire state of Texas. And in the last five years, this number has spiked by 60 percent.
Texas Public Radio reported that when this University Hospital called out for baby cuddlers, one man in particular, Doug Walters, an Army Veteran, was quick to volunteer. Walters, specializing in NAS, has been a part-time baby cuddler for over three years now.
Infants suffering from NAS experience a range of symptoms, most of which include tight muscles, subsequent body stiffness, tremors, seizures, and overly increased reflexes. These newborns are also more prone to gastrointestinal problems, and they often experience trouble breathing and eating.
Doug explains that often times, the cries of the NAS infants are distinct high-pitched shrieks. He says, “You can tell when kids cry because they’re mad, or they’re hungry. When babies with NAS cry, it ’s just… A very sad cry,” he said. “They don’t understand what’s happening, and they don’t understand why things hurt”. Often times these infants let out a high-pitched shriek, which is an identifiable cry from this syndrome.
A nurse who has worked for 27 years at the same University Hospital, Laurie Weaver, has come to care for babies with NAS more than any other type of patient. Laurie feels bad for these babies, explaining that it’s like they were “given a rough start, and I just like holding them and comforting them,” she said. For Laurie, it’s all about fairness, feeling drawn to the infants since they can’t speak for themselves yet.
Vicki Agnitsch, former nurse who is part of the Baby Cuddler Volunteer Program in Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa explains, “Touch is so important for babies”
She says that cuddling and physical touch are so important for these infants to
“When they know someone else is touching them, it gives them that warmth and safety and security that they crave,” she says. “They had that inside the mom, and then they come out into this cold, bright world. They don’t have that, so all of that swaddling, touch, and talk helps their development.”
Something so simple such as spending a few hours with newborns can actually improve their overall well-being at such a pivotal time in their life. Vicki says the Cuddler Volunteer program is “the best part of my week.”
Halfway across the country in Warrenton, Virginia at the Fauquier
Hospital, another cuddling program has been established. Cheryl Poelma,
director of women services told WTOP News that NAS infants
typically receive morphine shortly after birth in order to help combat their
The babies in withdrawal also tend to be irritable “ they aren’t coordinated with their suck, they can’t eat well, they may sneeze a lot, have loose stools — it’s all part of withdrawing,” she said.
The hospital decided to implement a two-pronged program, which consists of the cuddler program, as well as morphine administration. “They sit, and rock the infants, holding them tight,” Cheryl said. “They tend to like to have their hands close to their chests, they like a tight blanket swaddled around them. They also like to suck on pacifiers, so it’s rocking, sucking, keeping them in a quiet environment, reducing stimuli.”
“You’ll see them engaging you more, their eye contact will be better, they’ll start feeding better, not being so fussy, and they’ll start to sleep better,” she said, explaining how the results usually show in a matter of weeks.
All these forms of proactive empathy are starting to make a difference for NAS infants in hospitals, as well as hopefully shed a bit of spotlight onto the crisis.