FGCU doctor studies method for detoxing opioid-addicted babies

Author: Amy Oshier Writer: Joey Pellegrino
Published: Updated:

A Florida Gulf Coast University professor studied a method for weaning babies off opioids now recommended by the National Institutes of Health and a local foster mom has detoxed more than one addicted baby using the method.

The opioid addiction problem in the U.S. is so widespread that 7% of babies are born with drug exposure, and many are addicted in the womb. Weaning them off opioids is a challenge, but research is being done on the safest ways to break their addictions.

Foster mom Karen Scott has managed multiple babies coming into the world hooked on drugs.

“They go through withdrawal; they cry a lot,” Scott said. “They’re uncomfortable. They have fevers, they have a lot of diarrhea. They don’t latch on, so it’s hard to feed them. They are just miserable.”

The Scott family nurtured one baby boy through his addiction with lots of love and support.

“We swaddled him… swaddling is the best technique for an addicted baby that there is and holding him; movement, you know, is something that mimics the womb,” Scott said. “That lets him know that there’s movement, that you’re close by.”

Every 24 minutes, a baby is born with opioids in its system because drugs were passed from the mother to the baby while it was in the womb. The challenge is detoxing them quickly with minimal discomfort.

Dr. Rosemary Higgins is the associate vice president of research and sponsored programs with FGCU. She is also a neonatologist who works with sick and premature babies. Higgins was part of a national study that may change the course of treating opioid-addicted babies. In the past, it was common to dose them with medications.

“Most hospitals had a number at which they would start treatment with an opioid substitute for the baby,” Higgins said. “For instance, morphine sometimes is used. Other drugs are also commonly used. And then the baby was slowly weaned off of that.”

But many doctors felt there was a better way: supportive care like the Scotts used. Higgins’ study group looked at a method called ESC—eat, sleep, console.

“It’s non-pharmacology, it’s non-drug, whereby you console the baby, allow them to feed, allow them to sleep spontaneously on their own,” Higgins said.

The study found babies who went through the standard dosing method stayed in the hospital longer.

“They went home in an average of 14.9 days, so about two-plus weeks, a little bit over,” Higgins said. “And the intervention group—or the ESC eat, sleep, console group—went home after seven to eight days, which was a huge improvement.”

Karen Scott’s little guy bounced back quickly, staying in the NICU only a few days and going home sooner than expected. Now, at two months old, all signs of addiction are gone.

“He is so, so happy and surrounded with, you know, a dozen kids that love him just as much as we do,” Scott said.

Living proof that a dose of tlc goes a long way

Higgins’ research was just featured in the New England Journal of Medicine. It included thousands of babies in 26 hospitals around the country. She hopes the American Academy of Pediatrics will back ESC as the new standard.

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