BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The consequence of heroin addiction is a brutal withdrawal that can require 24 hour monitoring. Patients shake uncontrollably, wail and scream.
"It's excruciating. They're uncomfortable, it seems to last forever," said licensed clinical social worker Kitzia Baxter.
The side effects of a detoxing may sound familiar, but the patients Baxter sees are just days old, born into addiction as collateral damage of a growing heroin and opioid drug abuse epidemic.
"It's very frightening. People should be very concerned about it," said Neonatologist Dr. Steve Spedale.
Like hospitals across the nation, Woman's Hospital and their Newborn and Infant Intensive Care Unit are seeing a rise in cases of neonatal abstinence syndrome which are babies going through drug withdrawals. NAS is the result of heroin or drug use during pregnancy.
As mothers use, their unborn child also uses.
Experts say addiction can override even the most protective instincts of a pregnant woman, making rehab especially difficult.
However, with the patients only in their care for a short period of time, doctors in the NICU say their impact is limited. Spedale says they have the ability to treat babies suffering from NAS, but can do little once babies leave the hospital.
"Sadly, a lot of these parents their families have no idea they're addicted," said Baxter.
"It's helping them navigate with their families that this is a really great time to come clean and let your family know you're struggling with addiction."
After birth, babies at risk for NAS have to be closely monitored for withdrawal symptoms and treated accordingly. How bad the withdrawal is, depends on what drugs the mother used. Sometimes, comforting a child is enough to calm symptoms. Other times, medicines like Morphine may be required to wean a child's addiction.
"When a baby is in the NICU for 40 days receiving morphine it's excruciating to watch," said Baxter. "A lot of these parents aren't here. Our volunteers are holding these babies and rocking these babies."
According to studies, the number of NAS cases nationwide has increased five-fold in recent years. Federal data shows in 2000 there were 1.2 cases of NAS for every 1,000 births. By 2012, the case rate increased to 5.8. Similarly, federal data also shows an increase in maternal opioid use.
Babies suffering from NAS typically have a longer, more costly hospital stay. The National Institute for Health says the average cost of a healthy birth is around $3,000. By comparison, the average medical bill of a baby with NAS $66,700.
Dr. Steve Spedale says more concerning is the fact that doctors have no idea how these children will be affected as they grow.
"The scariest thing for me the developing brain in this environment, especially the mothers who use multiple drugs. We just don't know," said Spedale.
Spedale says reducing these cases and keeping these babies healthy after they leave the NICU will take everyone in the community, from law enforcement to law makers. He says there needs to be an effort to help mothers struggling with addiction early on, and more resources to help them stay clean after giving birth.
"By the time I get them it's too late. The damage has already been done," said Spedale.