A total of 76 newborn babies with drug addiction withdrawal symptoms were recorded last year in Ireland. Half of these discharges were from Dublin hospitals.

There are currently three drug liaison midwives within the Dublin area, attached to each of the maternity hospitals. They support pregnant women who have drug-related problems and work with them for a period after the baby is born. This year, the Health Service Executive (HSE) has given funding for two more drug liaison midwives to be recruited in Limerick and Cork.

Between 2013 and 2017, there were 472 discharges from Irish hospitals of newborns with addiction issues due to their mother’s use of drugs during pregnancy. Although startling, the 2017 figure of 76 represents a 17% fall drop in the comparable figure for 2016, when there was a total of 92 newborns recorded, according to the HSE.

A breakdown of drugs that the babies were experiencing withdrawal from was not provided by the HSE. Although, Justin Gleeson, a Drug Liaison Midwife with the HSE Addiction Service working in Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital, said there is a significant cohort of women presenting with primary opioid addiction, and they have also seen a rise in unprescribed tablet misuse. Cocaine (both powder and crack), along with cannabis and alcoholism are also significant issues.

Figures released from the European Drug Report 2018: Trends and Developments shows that young adults (aged 15–34) in Ireland are taking significantly more MDMA and cannabis in recent years than they used to. In addition, when compared against 30 other European countries, Ireland ranks second for the highest rate of opioids use per population (behind the UK). Ireland has around 19,000 high-risk opioid users.

The newborn babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome present with a high-pitched cry and exaggerated tremors.

“They can be quite agitated and are very, very difficult to feed. As a consequence, because they’re so difficult to feed they would tend to lose weight quite rapidly”, said Mr Gleeson.

However, the babies are treated quickly to minimise distress. Any baby showing significant withdrawal symptoms is kept in hospital for 120 hours post-delivery. The babies are observed and stay with their mums unless further intervention is needed, such as neonatal intensive care. During the 120-hour observation period, the hospital uses scorecards to keep track of the baby’s symptoms.

The treatment period varies from case to case, and depends on the baby’s medical requirements. It could last from a week to months. The babies will be weaned off the drugs they have been prescribed in the course of their treatment.

“Sometimes we need to use a combination of different therapies for babies who are suffering from extreme withdrawals. It’s like a detox programme”, said Mr Gleeson.

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