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Local hospital treats babies going through withdrawal

ALBANY -- Doctors in Albany and Bennington tell CBS6 that some babies are born with symptoms of withdrawal. It's called neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS. Experts say it is found in babies exposed to certain drugs, like opiates, during pregnancy.

The heroin or other opiates - if the mother has been taking them - once the baby is born, if the baby was used to that level, it suddenly shows withdrawal, said Dr. Upender Munshi, from Albany Med. He said symptoms arent always based on the dose of the drug. Sometimes small doses cause problems in babies, sometimes large doses cause no issues once the baby is born.

In the last decade we have a seen an almost 3-4 fold increase in the numbers, said Dr. Munshi, from Albany Med. Its kind of leveled off, but that shouldnt mean it is abating.

Dr. Munshi said he thinks Albany is seeing numbers level off because other hospitals are offering programs to keep families closer to home. Southwestern Vermont Hospital in Bennington, Vermont is one.

CBS6 spoke with a mother, who didn't want to be identified. She said her son had symptoms of withdrawal when he was born in Bennington. She wouldn't share much more about his birth because she said it's too painful to talk about what he went through.

"That was the worst part, especially because it makes me feel like a horrible person," she said.

"Addiction is very powerful and it can get a hold of a mother's love. Even though these mothers love their babies," said Pam Schnare, a nurse in Bennington, VT.

Schnare helped develop a program at Southwestern Vermont Hospital in Bennington, to help treat babies with NAS. The program, called Safe Arms, started a few years back.

Increasingly we started to see moms and babies who were suffering with addiction problems. They have very special medical needs and there is a bit of critical care involved at times, said Dr. Themarge Small, an obstetrician at Southwestern Vermont Hospital.

We were doing drug tests on these moms and thats kind of when we were able to put two and two together and see that we were seeing babies dependent on whatever drugs the mothers were taking, said Schnare.

Dr. Small said that before Safe Arms was set up, the hospital would have to send babies to Albany Med for care. The program has allowed them to keep more babies and mothers closer to home.

The doctors and nurses say the process of treating these babies starts by identifying mothers and getting them treatment. That often includes a replacement drug, like Suboxone. Doctors at Southwestern Vermont Hospital said babies can still go through withdrawal symptoms when their mothers are on that, but the pregnancy is often healthier.

CBS6 asked how the mothers are identified. The hospital said that sometimes the mothers seek help from the Safe Arms program on their own, sometimes a family member will seek help for them and sometimes mothers are referred by other doctors or nurses.

Dr. Martin Luloff is a pediatrician at Southwestern Vermont Hospital. He said it helps doctors and nurses when they know before a baby is born, that symptoms of withdrawal may show up.

He said that with the Safe Arms program, parents go through an informational meeting, where they learn what to expect.

They understand what the signs of withdrawal may be, we explain possible complications, we explain there is no stigma attached to this at all, he said.

When they dont know a mother is addicted, they doctors and nurses are now trained to better spot the signs.

Being able to recognize the subtle signs in these babies such as tremors and hyperactivity when we dont know mom is addicted, said John Gottung, director of women's and children's services.

"Usually, at about 24 hours we start to see some irritability," said Dr. Luloff.

Dr. Luloff said babies with NAS can cry uncontrollably, have tremors, fevers, sweat, vomit, even have breathing or heart problems. The symptoms can last a few days, or weeks.

As they are treating these babies, the goal is actually to keep them out of the nursery. Instead, nurses said they want to keep the babies with their mother, in the room so they can treat these symptoms as a family.

They are immediately involved, they are not being separated and isolated from their child. That they are in fact part of the team it makes a huge difference, said Dr. Luloff.

They start with swaddling, cuddling, extra feedings and with quiet. Parents and nurses rank the symptoms on what's called a Finnegan score. If the first level of treatment doesn't work, drugs may be needed. In that case, the Safe Arms team said that babies are moved back to the nursery and given small amounts of morphine.

We only go to pharmacutical intervention when the Finnegan scores indicate the baby is in distress, said Dr. Luloff.

"If they are one of the babies that need to be treated with the morphine sulfate, they could be here for weeks. We've had as high as 19 days was our longest length of stay," said Gottung,

The hospital said that word about the program is spreading and more mothers are seeking help. The Safe Arms team said it knows there is a stigma attached to pregnant mothers battling addiction. It works to train doctors and nurses so they approach these families without judgement.

Folks have developed a sense of trust knowing there's a place they can go to get help and support, said Dr. Small.

The hospital is very proud its community is addressing this issue.

Its in your backyard and shoving it under the rug isnt going to solve the problem, said Schnare. This is a patient population, they have a chronic illness.

That is making difference for the mother CBS6 spoke with who is pregnant again. In the past, she said she didnt seek help and tried to fight her pain pill addiction on her own.

Im on a program, I go to groups, Im trying to get better and be there for my children, said the mother.

She said that her love for her child is what is pushing her.

I love my kids, my kids are my world, she said.
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