Media reports of babies being born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) tend to leave out a very important fact. Some of the babies who go through withdrawal at birth may not be addicted to a drug.
Withdrawal Difference Between Use of Prescription Meds And Abuse
Consider this: if you have cancer and your oncologist prescribes an opioid pain reliever to help ease your pain when you come off that pain reliever, you will probably experience some symptoms of withdrawal. This does not mean you are addicted to the pain med.
Consider another example: a pregnant woman is being treated with methadone to help her successfully recover from an addiction. When her baby is born, he displays the symptoms of withdrawal. Is he addicted to a drug? Or is he like the cancer patient whose body is going through the withdrawal process even though there is no addiction?
If addiction is the continued and deliberate use and abuse of a drug for its pleasurable effects, despite its substantial harm, then withdrawal from temporary use of medication taken as directed does not fit the definition.
Withdrawal Is Not Treated Differently When Moms Receive Medically Assisted Treatment
Yet, the mothers of babies who experience neonatal abstinence syndrome from a prescribed treatment are treated the same as a woman with an active addiction, e.g., she is made to feel bad for her success. Pediatrician and professor Dr. Joshua Sharfstein at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health explains that when babies are born to mothers who are being effectively treated for drug addiction, the babies usually get a good start in life, even though the babies were treated for the symptoms of withdrawal at birth. Successfully recovering mothers are typically devoted and dedicated to giving their children the best start they can, and in these situations, the child’s home life may be more important than the fact they were born with NAS.
Yet, we still look at babies born to mothers abusing street drugs and babies born to women who are being treated with buprenorphine or methadone as having the same problems and facing the same dangers.
Moms In Recovery Need Support When They Have MAT
One of the worst things that can happen in these families is that the mother is made to feel so bad for her use of Subutex or methadone that she comes off her treatment. If she relapses, and the odds are high that she might, things spiral downwards quickly. Child services may get involved, and mom may lose custody of the baby. This child may not get the same good start in life as he would have if mom would have been supported in her recovery and applauded for getting her life in order and if the symptoms of NAS would have been recognized for what they were - non-addictive withdrawal from a treatment medication.
Healthcare professionals and government entities like child services must do more to ensure that successfully recovering mothers are given the positive support they need during pregnancy, labor, and delivery and are not shamed because they are doing the right thing. If not for the mother, then to prevent bad outcomes for their children.