- Kenny Lin, MD, MPH
The opioid epidemic accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that more than 93,000 people died from opioid-related overdoses in 2020, a 30 percent increase over 2019. As more pregnant patients have been using opioids, rates of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) have also been on the rise, nearly doubling between 2010 and 2017. Family physicians who care for newborns will increasingly be called on to manage this syndrome. In an editorial in the September issue of AFP, Drs. Roschanak Mossabeb and Kevin Sowti reviewed key points in treatment of NAS, including a low-stimulation environment, skin-to-skin contact, frequent breastfeeding, and opioid therapy when indicated. They emphasized that involving the mother in the care plan is essential to achieving the best outcomes:
Mothers should be viewed as medicine for their infants; by spending time together, infants will likely need less pharmacologic treatment, hence a shorter hospital stay and decreased hospital costs. In addition, strengthening the mother-infant bond may reduce postpartum depression and improve maternal stress response.
Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons mothers and newborns with NAS are often separated after being discharged home. A recent county-level analysis in Health Affairs found that national increases in NAS are associated with increases in placement of infants in foster care: "every one diagnosis ... per ten births was associated with a 41 percent higher rate of infant foster care entry." Infants residing in rural counties were more likely to be placed in foster care than those residing in urban counties.
A quality improvement collaborative in Colorado hospitals aimed to standardize care of opioid-exposed newborns by implementing the Eat, Sleep, Console model. Study results showed that while hospital length of stay and pharmacologic therapy use decreased for all mother-infant dyads during the study period, these positive effects were delayed in mothers who self-identified as being of Hispanic ethnicity. Racial differences in treatment and outcomes have also been observed in studies comparing Black and and White newborns with NAS. However, a critique of two of these studies cautioned physicians against conflating racial disparities with genetic differences in treatment requirements, noting that implicit bias and racism is more likely to explain the disparities than biologically-based explanations.