(CNN) — Rates of neonatal abstinence syndrome surged in recent years, but a newer approach to caring for newborn babies exposed to opioids during pregnancy gets them out of the hospital sooner and with less medication, according to a study published on Sunday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Newborns in opioid withdrawal may experience upset stomach, inconsolable crying, seizures and extreme discomfort. The study looked at the impacts of the Eat, Sleep, Console care approach on 1,300 infants at 26 US hospitals, and compared them with the current standard for caring for infants exposed to opioids.
Eat, Sleep, Console encourages involvement from parents, and prioritizes care that doesn't involve medication, such as swaddling, skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding. The usual approach involves a nurse measuring a baby's withdrawal symptoms -- such as their level of irritability, pitch of crying, fever or tremors -- before providing treatment such as methadone or morphine.
"Compared to usual care, use of the Eat, Sleep, Console care approach substantially decreased time until infants with neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome were medically ready for discharge, without increasing specified adverse outcomes," the researchers wrote in the study.
The infants assessed with the Eat, Sleep, Console care method were discharged after eight days on average, compared with almost 15 days for the infants who were cared for by the standard approach, the researchers said. Additionally, infants in the Eat, Sleep, Console care group were 63% less likely to receive opioid medication -- 19.5% received medication compared with 52% in the group receiving usual care.
The current approach to usual care "is a very comprehensive and nurse-led way of assessing the infant, whereas the Eat, Sleep, Console approach involves the mom in the way that you assess the infant, and allows the mom to take part in trying to soothe the infants and see if the infant is able to be soothed or is able to eat or is able to sleep," according to Rebecca Baker, the director of the NIH HEAL Initiative, which provides grants to researchers studying ways to alleviate the country's opioid health crisis.
"So, in that way, it's a little bit more functional, like looking at the abilities of the infants versus how severely the infant is affected."
Assessment results determine whether a baby should receive medication to control withdrawal symptoms, Baker said.
"So even with Eat, Sleep, Console, some infants that were exposed to a lot of opioids during a mother's pregnancy, they'll still need medication-based treatment for withdrawal. It's just fewer of them need it and when they need it, they need less medication to manage the withdrawal symptoms," she said.
The Eat, Sleep, Console method was developed about eight years ago, and some hospitals have already implemented it. But Baker said the study's findings could change how more hospitals practice caring for infants with neonatal abstinence syndrome, which primarily occurs in infants who were exposed to opioids while in utero.
"The rise of really powerful fentanyl, the synthetic opioid, means that if a mother has used drugs during pregnancy, the baby will be exposed to more powerful drugs, which likely has an effect. We haven't had a chance to study it in detail yet, but it will affect how they feel when they're born and separated from the mom," Baker said.
Findings from the study, which were presented at the PAS 2023 Meeting on Sunday, could have a big impact on hospitals by freeing up bed space in the neonatal intensive care unit and boosting morale among nurses at risk of burnout.
"We trained over 5,000 nurses as part of the study. They felt really empowered to help the mom care for the infant to help the infant recover, and so I think from a morale perspective, that's incredibly important and valuable," Baker said. "And as you know, nurses are facing really severe staffing shortages and morale challenges so having this tool available to them where they are kind of able to do something positive in the life of the infant and the connection with the mom is really important."
The researchers are currently following up with a subgroup of the infants from the study for up to two years to see how they grow and develop.
"One of the things that we want to be really sure of is that there are no negative consequences associated with taking less medication, so we'll be looking for that," Baker said.
Rising levels of neonatal abstinence syndrome
The United States has seen an explosion in the number of infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome in recent years, swelling by about 82% between 2010 and 2017, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of maternal opioid-related diagnoses is also on the rise, increasing by 131% during that same time frame.
Nearly 60 infants are diagnosed with NAS each day, based on data from the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality in 2020.
The United States' opioid epidemic has been expanding in recent years and opioid deaths are the leading cause of accidental death in the US.
More than a million people have died of drug overdoses -- mostly opioids -- in the two decades since the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began collecting that data. Deaths from opioid overdoses rose more than 17% in just one year, from about 69,000 in 2020 to about 81,020 in 2021, the CDC found.
Most are among adults, but children are also dying, largely after ingesting synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Between 1999 and 2016, nearly 9,000 children and adolescents died of opioid poisoning, with the highest annual rates among adolescents 15 to 19, the CDC found.
Opioid use during pregnancy has been linked to maternal mortality and risk of overdose for the mother, according to the CDC, while infants risk preterm birth, low birthweight, breathing problems and feeding problems.