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We must protect Florida’s newborn babies from drug addiction

Guest post by William Liu, M.D., corporate medical director of Pediatrix Medical Group of Florida, Inc. and Neonatal Intensive Care Unit medical director of The Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida

From 2005 to 2010, Lee County hospitals have seen a 700 percent increase in the number of babies born with a drug addiction.  Statewide, based upon data from the Agency for Health Care Administration, this problem has increased by about 430 percent in the same time period.

When a baby is born addicted to drugs, the child goes through withdrawal similar to how an adult going through rehabilitation would. Withdrawal in babies can include uncontrollable crying, inability to sleep or eat normally, throwing up, diarrhea, sweating, breathing problems, and in severe cases, seizures. This should not be the way for a human being to enter the world. Watching a newborn go through withdrawal is absolutely heartbreaking.

However, once a woman who is dependent on narcotics becomes pregnant they should not try to stop taking the medication, whether prescribed legally or taken illegally. If the mother tries to go through withdrawal while pregnant, the baby in the womb is at risk for active withdrawal, leading to poor development, early delivery or even death.  Instead, a controlled treatment program is suggested, with methadone presently considered the most effective drug for pregnant mothers who are addicted to pain killers.  To avoid this complication, it is extremely important that women are drug-free or have a pregnancy plan BEFORE they get pregnant.

Prescription drugs are a growing concern and it appears that the increase in babies born addicted to drugs is directly related to an increase in prescription drug abuse.

Today, unlike the cocaine epidemic of the 1970s and 80s, pain killers are legal and legitimately prescribed for pain relief.  While there are mothers with a history of addiction and doctor shopping, there are also mothers who claim surprise, shock and dismay, unaware and uninformed of the potential consequences of their treatments, having acquired their prescriptions legally and under the trusting care of a doctor.

The great majority of physicians are dedicated to the betterment of their patients, doing their best to balance many factors to achieve the best possible outcomes.  However, the art of medicine utilizes a complex decision tree, weighing risk and benefit on many levels.

State and national awareness is indeed increasing, but the problem still exists – and is growing. I urge women of child-bearing age who are currently on prescription pain medication, illegally or legally, to talk to their doctor about a pregnancy plan, just in case. No baby should have to experience the pain of drug addiction or withdrawal, especially during their first days of life. 

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