Tennessee Responds to the Rising Number of Drug-Dependent Babies

Dec 4, 2012

A new study showing a major increase in Tennessee babies born addicted to drugs has prompted the state Health Department to require hospitals to report that information. A health department working group found the number of babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS, has increased ten-fold over the past decade. NAS can result from a mother’s drug use, including alcohol and withdrawal drugs like methadone.

Henry County Medical Center Women's Center Director Rhonda Carnell says it’s important for healthcare providers to know the signs.

“A baby can’t report to you, ‘I feel bad in this way,’ y’know, like an adult can," Carnell said. "So we have different physiological and neurobehavioral things that we look at if we suspect it.”

Symptoms include high-pitched cries, tremors, fever and vomiting. Drug dependent babies require more hospital care. For NAS babies receiving TennCare benefits, the cost was five times more than for other babies.

Carnell says her staff sends most suspected NAS cases to a more specialized birthing center. But mothers can’t always control when and where they go into labor. 

Carnell says another problem is babies don’t always show NAS signs at birth.

"Babies have a fat storage and so sometimes these symptoms may not, if you weren’t aware of an addiction issue, may not show up until, 72 hours of age is pretty much the cut off," said Carnell.

She says often babies are home by that time, putting them more at risk.

Starting in January, Tennessee hospitals will report all NAS cases to help babies get faster and more accurate care.