How To Help Babies Born Addicted To Drugs

How to Help Babies Born Addicted to Drugs

When a woman takes drugs, nicotine, or alcohol during her pregnancy, her infant is also exposed to the substance. As such, the baby is born into the world with a drug/alcohol dependency. As the newborn is cut off from the source (the mother) upon birth, the baby tends to develop withdrawal symptoms shortly thereafter. This condition is called Neonatal/Newborn Drug Withdrawal – also known as Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS).

Babies Born Addicted to Drugs

How Prevalent Is NAS?

According to a study, NAS occurs at a rate of 5.63 per 1,000 births in the United States. There are more cases in rural areas, such as rural East Tennessee where there is a whopping rate of 26.2 NAS cases for every 1,000 births.

Rates vary according to states as well. The lowest is in Hawaii at 0.7 per 1,000 births, with the highest – 33.4 – occurring in West Virginia.

What Substances Cause NAS?

NAS affects babies of mothers who have taken marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine, or cocaine.  Even prescription medications such as oxycodone, codeine, and SSRI anti-depressants can lead to NAS symptoms as well.

Cigarette use and alcohol also bring about withdrawal symptoms in babies. The latter is particularly known to cause a specific range of conditions known as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.

What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of NAS?

Addicted babies are usually fussy. They can also develop fever, vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, and blotchy skin within the first 10 days of birth. In severe cases, the baby can also suffer from seizures.

One of the Symptoms of NAS

Other NAS symptoms include:

  • High-Pitched Crying
  • Irritability
  • Trembling
  • Hyperactivity
  • Sleep Problems
  • Sweating  
  • Fast Breathing
  • Sneezing Or Stuffy Nose
  • Poor Feeding Habits
  • Increased Muscle Tone
  • Delayed Weight Gain Or Slow Development

Apart from NAS, babies born to addicted mothers may also develop jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and/or skin). In some cases, infants can suffer from birth defects as well.

How Will The Baby Be Treated?

Withdrawal is an unpleasant event, especially for babies. As such, the infant will be admitted to a special care nursery. This is especially the case if he/she demonstrates severe symptoms. Your baby’s hospital stay can last for about a week, though this could be shorter or longer depending on his/her progress.

Although the baby is hospitalized, the parents can still visit, feed, and take care of him/her. Family presence is recommended, with experts emphasizing the importance of having both parents at bedside. To wit, a study has shown that paternal presence can help reduce the number of symptoms, which of course can lead to a shorter stay in the hospital.

NAS babies usually get fussy, so one of the more important interventions is to keep the newborn calm. This can be done by holding or soothing the baby.

Because of the diarrhea and vomiting that occurs NAS, the infant will be given IV fluids as well.

To prevent or minimize seizures, the infant will be given appropriate medications. Such treatments include Morphine or Phenobarbitone, with doses depending on the infant’s weight.

Once your doctor deems it safe for the baby to be discharged, he/she will prescribe take-home medications that you should give as directed. He/she will also advise for regular follow-up. This is again, very important as this will help the healthcare worker track the infant’s progress and response to treatment.

What To Expect At Home

Withdrawal symptoms may last for a week up to 6 months, but they will decrease as time progresses. As such, your baby may still demonstrate the following symptoms at home:

Colic, or crying fits where the baby seems to be experiencing pain
  • Colic, or crying fits where the baby seems to be experiencing pain
  • Difficulty latching on during breastfeeding
  • Irregular sleeping patterns
  • Small/delayed weight gain

What You Can Do

As mentioned, your infant’s withdrawal symptoms may last for a long time. That being said, here are some helpful tips that may soothe the baby during his/her fits.

If Your Baby Cries In A High Pitch, You Should:

Whenever Your Infant Sucks On His/Her Fists Too Much, Make Sure To:

  • Avoid applying lotion or powder on the newborn’s hands.
  • Cover the baby’s fists with mittens to prevent wounds or skin damage.
  • Should there be damaged skin areas, make sure to clean them often. 

Whenever The Baby Is Hyperactive:

Comfort the baby by covering him/her with a soft flannel blanket

If The Infant Is Trembling:

  • Bring your baby to a quiet warm room.
  • Avoid handling your baby too much.

If Your Newborn Has Difficulty Feeding, Try To:

Should Your Baby Vomit Often, Remember To:

Burp your infant after feeding or whenever he/she stops sucking.
  • Burp your infant after feeding or whenever he/she stops sucking.
  • Support the newborn’s jaws and cheeks when he/she eats. This will help improve swallowing and sucking movements.
  • Make sure that your baby’s crib is free from vomit or dirt. The smell may cause the infant to vomit even more. Add to that, the vomitus may end up damaging your newborn’s skin.

If Your Baby Has A Hard Time Sleeping, You Could:

  • Check your infant’s bottom to see if it’s clean.
  • Breastfeed your baby as needed.
  • Minimize lights and sounds in the room.
  • Rock your baby to sleep.
  • Play some soothing music.

If Your Baby Experiences Breathing Difficulties, Remember To:

  • Don’t wrap the baby in tight or too many layers.
  • Make sure that your infant’s nose and mouth are clean.
  • Keep your baby in a well-supported sitting position.
  • Feed the newborn slowly, allotting resting time in between feedings.
  • Don’t let the baby sleep on his/her tummy.
  • Bring the newborn to the baby should his/her breathing difficulties worsen, i.e. turning blue, choking.

Should Your Newborn Nurse A Fever Of Over 37C or 98.6F, Make Sure To:

Baby Have Fever
  • Minimize the baby’s clothing and blankets.
  • Go to the hospital if the fever lasts for 4 hours or if other untoward symptoms develop.


Taking care of an ‘addicted’ baby can be physically and emotionally taxing for parents or guardians. Although this is the case, following the tips above may be useful in hastening the infant’s recovery.

Latest posts by Raychel Ria Agramon, BSN, RN, MPM (see all)