The National Institute of Drug Abuse states that every 15 minutes, one baby suffering from opioid withdrawal is born.
Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) is a serious crisis affecting millions of newborn babies born to mothers who may have been addicts. The number of infants born with this particular kind of withdrawal syndrome is increasing at a worrisome rate in the country and has become a national phenomenon that requires urgent attention. According to a report by KCCI News, The National Institute of Drug Abuse states that every 15 minutes, one baby suffering from opioid withdrawal is born. With withdrawal symptoms starting as soon as their birth, most of these babies end up in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
Such babies are often dangerously ill or born prematurely, and in need of all the care they can get. In an attempt to provide them some comfort, hospitals across America are now implementing 'baby cuddlers' programs where volunteers can sign up to provide the infants the much needed human connection. Vicki Agnitsch, a retired nurse, is one of the 22 volunteers of the Cuddler Volunteer program at Blank Children’s Hospital and is quite aware of just how important human touch and warmth is to newborns who end up in NICU.
"Touch is so important to babies. Without that, there would be a failure to thrive," she said, adding that the more cuddling and touch the babies receive, the fewer medications they need. Agnitsch has been a part of the program since its inception in 2011 and revealed that the couple of hours a week she spends cuddling newborns is "the best part of my week." Speaking of how the human connection helps babies, she stated, "When they know someone else is touching them, it gives them that warmth and safety and security that they crave."
Agnitshch noted, "They had that inside the mom, and then they come out into this cold, bright world. They don’t have that, so all of that swaddling, touch, and talk helps their development." The retired nurse believes these moments even possess the power to correct the course of these very young lives. According to Texas Public Radio, the highest number of babies with NAS in Texas is usually reported in Bexar County, San Antonio. The number of babies born with NAS has increased by 60 percent over the last five years in the state, of which a third is born in Bexar County.
With the number increasing day by day, several hospitals are putting out the call for more cuddlers, including University Hospital in San Antonio. Doug Walters, an Army Veteran and retired software engineer, has been a volunteer for the hospital's cuddling program for more than 3 years. Having provided comfort to many babies in this duration, Walters is quite familiar with the variety of symptoms babies born with NAS struggle with. From tight muscles that lead to body stiffness, hyperactive reflexes, tremors and seizures, to trouble feeding and gastrointestinal problems, the veteran is now able to quickly recognize the distinct, high-pitched cry of such babies.
"You can tell when kids cry because they're mad, or they're hungry, and (babies with NAS) just...it's a very sad cry. It's just sad, because they don't understand what's happening, and they don't understand why things hurt. They just don't understand," he said. Nurse Laurie Weaver, who has worked in the NICU for 27 years, echoes Walters' sentiments towards these helpless newborns as she believes "they were given a rough start." Weaver points out that with three to four hundred born with the syndrome every year in Bexar County, the need for baby cuddlers is now greater than ever.
"We can have three and four babies assigned to us a day. They feed every three hours, and we don't always have time to hold them, so to have someone to sit there and hold them for you and talk to them... that is wonderful," she said. Dr. Meredith Flores, a pediatrician who takes care of babies in the NICU at the hospital, says that babies born with NAS do much better when held and cuddled. "We see a big difference in their scores (in) the babies that either the mom, or a volunteer, or someone is here holding them all day. Their scores are lower. Sometimes the dose of the medication they require is lower. They're able to wean faster off of that dose," she said.