The opioid dependency epidemic in the United States has grown to such proportions that every hour a baby is born addicted to opioids. These opioid addicted babies are born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, because their mother used drugs during her pregnancy. A study in The Journal of the American Medical Association takes a look at this issue as well as the costs associated with treating these babies.

“The incidence has gone crazy and I think it has the potential to become a national or international issue,” said Marie J. Hayes, a clinical neuroscientist at the University of Maine, and an author of an editorial accompanying the study. “People who previously might not have used heroin or the needle are more likely to use prescription opiates.”

Although it is unclear if babies exposed to opioids in the womb will have long-term problems at this time, the immediate problems they have are substantial. Many of these addicted babies are hospitalized while being treated for their withdrawal symptoms, some with methadone or other medications. This hospitalization can last several weeks, often in neonatal intensive care units.

“These babies require a tremendous amount of nursing care,” said Dr. Mark Hudak, chairman of pediatrics at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Jacksonville and an author of new guidelines on neonatal abstinence syndrome issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics this year.”

Doctors don’t know enough about how to treat these babies effectively and efficiently. They end up in the hospital for long periods of time, some being weaned from drugs too quickly and ending up re-hospitalized, some being overdosed on the meds they are being treated with. Babies have died due to a lack of information and understanding. It is a complicated and delicate situation, and there is a great demand for further research around recognizing and treating pregnant women who are addicted to opioids as well as the treatment of babies born addicted.