The opioid crisis has touched all of us; more than 2.5 million Americans are dealing with addiction to prescription or illicit opioids. The origins of the epidemic can be traced back to the late 1990s when pharmaceutical companies began to aggressively market drugs like Oxycodone to providers. Drug manufacturers reassured the medical community that their products weren’t addictive and were the best option for managing short term and chronic pain. As the number of prescriptions grew, it became clear that opioids could be highly addictive.

Now that we have looked back to the start of this public health crisis – where does that leave us today? According to a 2018 study by the CDC, the number of women with Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) at labor and delivery has quadrupled in 10 years.  Unfortunately, this isn’t surprising. Opioid use has grown in all demographics with the largest increase occurring in women. Pregnant women with OUD face numerous barriers to care – limited financial resources, access to treatment, stigma, and fear of legal consequences.

When a pregnant woman is addicted to opioids, she is likely to have a constant level of the drug in her blood and her baby is receiving a constant dose through the placenta.  When her baby is delivered, a drug withdrawal syndrome called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) begins.  A new study found that incidence of NAS is rising in the United States. There was a five-fold increase in the proportion of babies born with NAS from 2000 to 2012 —equivalent to one baby suffering from opiate withdrawal born every 25 minutes. Newborns with NAS are more likely than other babies to also have low birth-weight and respiratory complications. In 2012, newborns with NAS stayed in the hospital an average of 16.9 days, compared to 2.1 days for other newborns.

Research shows Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) is the first-line recommendation for pregnant women with opioid use disorders. The goals of treatment are to manage withdrawal, reduce cravings, and prevent the feeling of getting “high”. Pregnant mothers receiving MAT are more likely to have prenatal care, better nutrition and have a higher birth-weight baby. MAT also helps to reduce illicit drug use and infections.

Researchers are learning more about moms and moms-to-be battling addiction. The more we know, the more we can help them with safe and effective treatment, helping them give their infants the very best start.