Number of newborns addicted to drugs continues to rise

Mother shares story of giving birth to addicted baby

By Tarik Minor - Anchor, I-TEAM reporter , David Benfield - Web producer
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - When babies are born addicted to drugs it's called neonatal abstinence syndrome. It means that during pregnancy, opioids pass through the mother's placenta to the womb, and the babies become just as dependent on the drug as their mothers.

The cry from a baby born addicted to opiates is higher pitched than that of a healthy baby -- because the moment their umbilical cord is cut, so is their drug supply.

Prime-time special airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday on News4Jax, Channel 4, with stories, videos, statistics and much more in our Opioid Nation special section.

Through the first few weeks of their life, pain and suffering are the only things babies born addicted to drugs know.

News4Jax spoke with a Jacksonville woman who said she regrets getting high on heroin while pregnant and wants her story heard in the hopes it will help other addicted women.

"I tried to quit at least three or five times during my pregnancy,” the mother said. “For me, I couldn't get sick. I couldn't miss work withdrawing. Anytime I had enough money to get a bag, my brain was there before my body."

The mother, who we'll call Sarah, said she was a fully functioning heroin addict, who every morning, afternoon and evening snorted the opiate throughout her pregnancy. She spent $80 a day to get high, fully aware that she was sacrificing her unborn son's health.

Sarah said her heroin addiction was stronger than the bond with her unborn baby, and, at the same time, was also putting her firstborn at risk.

"I would go away from my child and use heroin in the bathroom, and I would come back in (to) cook, clean, do the laundry (or) do bedtime stories, that was my normal way of living," Sarah said. "Nobody knew I was using. I went to all my doctor appointments."

Sarah's deep, dark secret was exposed the moment her son was born. He was full term but underweight and inconsolable. Doctors ran tests, knowing something wasn't right. After receiving the results, Sarah learned about the heart-wrenching process of weaning her second son off heroin.    

"I cried all the time, staring at him, knowing there is nothing I could do to fix it,” Sarah said. "It's very painful to know that I did that to my child. Because I couldn't quit, he had to hurt."

A newborn physically withdraws from heroin just like an adult, which results in trembling, crying, vomiting, increased muscle tone and even seizures. Typically, no amount of swaddling, holding or rocking can soothe an addicted baby. Instead, they’re given morphine in small doses that slowly taper off.

Dr. Samarth Shukla, who works in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at UF Health Jacksonville, said addicted mothers don't fully understand the effects of their own selfishness.

"It's painful when you see them with increased irritability. We are not able to console them. They cannot feed well. They have problems with weight gain, sweating, so it’s very stressful for babies," Shukla said.

The rate at which babies have been born with neonatal abstinence syndrome has quadrupled over the past 15 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The highest numbers of affected babies were in Maine, Vermont, West Virginia, Tennessee and Florida, with the problem at its worst in Duval County, according to UF Health's records.

In 2014, 121 babies were treated for neonatal abstinence syndrome. In 2015, that number jumped to 165 babies treated and in 2016, 158 babies were born suffering through withdrawals.

Those numbers are just for UF Health. As for all of Duval County, state statistics show a bigger problem. Out of 10,000 live births in 2013, Duval County had 450 heroin-addicted babies. That compares with Hillsborough County’s 324, Pasco County’s 256, Brevard County’s 231 and Volusia County’s 201 heroin-addicted babies.

The cost of treating babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome is 15 to 16 times higher than a healthy baby. National health care expenditures rose to $1.5 billion, according to the latest statistics.

"We have been spending more than a billion dollars each year behind treatment for this condition, a completely preventable condition,” Shukla said. “In our unit, the numbers are coming up.”

Heroin isn’t the only thing the newborns have been exposed to. The pregnant addicts are often alcoholics or have been taking prescription painkillers and experimenting with other drugs.

The number of heroin-addicted babies has been increasing since 2011 after a “pill mill” crackdown ordered by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi led to opiates like heroin quickly becoming the drug of choice.

Heroin, for instance, is cheaper on the streets, at about $10 a hit, and easy to get.

Doctors said the unborn victims will likely suffer long-term neurological problems and have a greater chance of becoming a drug addict later in life.

"Babies that have been exposed to drugs in their early life, eventually, are at high risk for being drug dependent. They can be drug users in the future," Shukla said.

Sarah told News4Jax that she wishes she would have sought professional help.

"You don't have to deal with that pain anymore,” Sarah said. “Anyone who's addicted knows you have to constantly chase the high. There are options. I never knew a detox existed or a rehab existed."

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