NORTH CENTRAL WIS. (WSAW) -- “His whole birth process and beginning month was pretty traumatic.”
Kronenwetter foster mom Sue Mathson recalled one of her foster children’s entries into the world. We’ll call him David to protect his identity, but that’s not his real name. David’s biological mother used meth during the pregnancy, Sue told us, and David was first exposed to drugs—and then began withdrawals—before his birth.
“[He] was born in respiratory distress, and was in the NICU for 10 days,” Sue said.
His troubles didn’t end after he left the hospital, though—Sue says he suffered from seizures for a period following his withdrawal.
What David experienced is similar to what many other babies go through in north central Wisconsin every year. Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) is drug withdrawal “cold turkey” after leaving the womb of either a drug-addicted mother or a mom who used addiction-recovery prescription drugs such as methadone.
Dr. Audra Winder, a neonatologist at Marshfield Medical Center, explained the symptoms. “Most common things are neurologic symptoms or gastrointestinal, so things like increased muscle tone, poor sleep, high-pitched crying, tremors, poor feeding, spitting up, diarrhea, they can also have low-grade fevers and increased respiratory rate.”
In 2009, 5 mothers in 1,000 used opioids during pregnancy, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS). By 2014, that number was up to 16.4 for every 1,000 women—and the DHS estimates that about half of their babies were born with NAS.
From 2016 to 2018, the Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU) at Marshfield Medical Center and Aspirus—the only NICUs in north central Wisconsin--cared for a combined 72 babies with NAS, or between 20 and 30 a year. As of May 28, Marshfield Medical Center had cared for nine already this year. Aspirus averaged 310 babies a year in their NICU during that time frame, with an average of 4.5% of them experiencing NAS from 2016 to 2017. That dipped to 2.9%, or 10 babies, in 2018. But outside of NICUs, the number of NAS babies is even higher.
We asked Ascension, which does not have a NICU, how many babies they were seeing with NAS. They average 1625 births a year across all four of their birthing centers in Woodruff, Rhinelander, Weston and Stevens Point. Out of that number, almost 3.6% are born addicted--or 58.5 babies. But when we asked if those babies were being treated by pediatricians or sent to a NICU outside of Ascension, spokesperson Tom Weaver told us there were too many variables to determine that from the data provided. Without that information, it’s difficult to determine whether their percentages are separate from or part of the numbers provided by Aspirus and Marshfield Medical Center; what we do know is that means at least 60 babies are born across north central Wisconsin with NAS every year--and probably more.
Winder says that the number of babies with NAS is continuing to either stay level or increase, but it’s becoming so common that some pediatricians are simply caring for the babies themselves instead of sending them to a NICU--which could explain the decrease at Aspirus last year.
“Fewer babies get transferred here just for that care, their pediatricians are providing them with--providing care of their withdrawal at their birth hospital,” Winder said. “So five years ago, we probably saw more babies here at our hospital we do now. But in the area, the number of babies is the same or are increasing.”
Winder said that in their NICU, mothers are often very invested in helping their baby through the withdrawal process, and experience guilt about what happened to their child. "It's a chance for them to do something to help their baby through that. So honestly, we see our moms for the most part being very invested in providing that care."
Neither is it exclusively illegal drugs. Many mothers, Winder says, are on prescription painkillers or addiction-recovery drugs, which can also produce NAS in their newborn.
As both Dr. Winder and Sue told us, a baby’s struggle with addiction doesn’t end when they leave the hospital.
“They remain at risk for developmental issues, behavioral issues, maybe an increased risk of vision problems, or ear infections too,” Dr. Winder noted.
Sue has watched the effects on David over the course of several years in foster care, and she says he has struggled with a number of issues since, including being diagnosed with ADHD.
“He would just go, go, go—like, he couldn’t physically stop,” she said. “He’d be moving his arms and legs, arms and legs—so hyper…it was pretty bad.”
But more than that, David struggles to manage his emotions, she explained. “By three, it was really bad. Go from zero to 100 in anger, like you haven’t seen before… he couldn’t be with other kids from like, age three to four, because he would just push or hurt them.”
“It's been rough for this child, for sure--has led to some pretty significant diagnoses and some pretty hardcore drugs having to go into a little child, and it's not his fault.”