There’s nothing like the smell, grace and promise of a beautiful new baby. It’s like they symbolise a fresh hope for the world. Connecting with, and cuddling, a newborn is a sweet and magical experience, but for thousands of babies around the world, it’s something that is vital to their wellbeing.
Increasing numbers of babies are being born into a fight for their lives, as their bodies desperately try to rid themselves of the drugs their mothers took during pregnancy. With varying degrees of painkillers or heroin in their little bodies, their first days of life are a traumatic and painful experience.
Opioid addiction has reached crisis levels in America, with the number of drug addicted babies born in the US having quadrupled in the last decade. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, one baby every 25 minutes is born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), which requires the babies to go through a withdrawal program where they are given decreasing doses of morphine. The situation is getting so serious now that some hospitals are introducing programs to help drug-addicted mothers and their babies.
These tiny babies experience intense withdrawal symptoms of diarrhoea, shaking, vomiting, crying and intense pain. If you imagine what a drug-addicted adult experiences when they go cold turkey – that’s what these vulnerable babies go through as well.
Nurses report that drug affected babies shake, sweat, cry, get severe acidic diarrhoea that burns their skin, as well as suffer the pain of being overstimulated by lights and sound. But, there is hope; the same nurses note that when held and cuddled for long periods, these babies are comforted and can cope with their ordeal much better.
It is vital to their recovery that they get tender, loving care so they can survive this painful experience so early on. One nurse has started a program calling for volunteers to cuddle these babies.
The Birth of The Program
Jane Cavanaugh, a nurse at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, is encouraging volunteers to hold, cuddle and soothe the babies suffering through withdrawal. She told the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News:
These babies going through withdrawal and need to be held for extended periods … They need human touch. They need soothing. They need talking.
Often they spend months alone in hospitals as they are weaned off the heroin or painkillers that filled their bodies during their time in the womb. Sometimes the infants have been removed from their parents, or their drug addicted mothers are attending drug rehabilitation programs, so there is no one there to comfort and soothe them, except the already overworked nurses and hospital staff.
Doctors have also reported that volunteers cuddling the babies reduces both the amount of medication they need, as well as the length of their stay in the hospital.
Cabell Huntington Hospital, in West Virginia, was one of the first hospitals to recognise a need for specialised care for these chemically dependent newborns, with the opening of a second neonatal unit specifically for withdrawal babies. It also has an off-site rehabilitation centre, Lily’s Place, where babies are given dedicated treatment.
Lily’s Place opened its doors in October 2014 as the first Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) Centre in the United States, with specialised care and a volunteer program, housing newborns away from fluorescent light and noise of the busy hospital.
Cuddle care programs are popping up all over the US in response to the soaring rates of drug-affected babies being born. Most hospitals have seen huge success with having cuddlers come in to soothe premature babies, and now hospitals can use the same loving care for these vulnerable babies battling to heal their drugged systems.
The Importance of Secure Attachement and Bonding
Along with simply surviving the difficult process of being weaned off the drugs in their system, these babies need to experience secure attachment and bonding. All babies need to experience secure attachment to their mothers or caregivers early on, and this is vital in developing basic qualities like trust in life, trust in others, a trust that your needs will be met, as well as developing the ability to connect and be intimate later in life.
Psychologists define attachment as a ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings’, and babies have a universal need to seek close proximity with their caregiver when under stress or when they feel threatened. The need for secure attachment and love is even greater in these babies suffering through the first months of their lives, and loving touch, care and support is a tremendous lifeline to them. Adults with healthy relationships experienced an abundance of physical touch and love as babies.
Though the thought of these precious babies crying as they endure the pain of coming off the drugs in their system is not pleasant, there is hope. In a forum for parents who have adopted drug-affected babies, each parent shared that the screaming and incessant crying of these vulnerable babies was dramatically improved through wearing the baby in a sling or cuddling them. And every parent reported an amazing transformation in the baby after they had been successfully weaned off the drugs.
These beautiful parents adopted babies born with chemical dependencies and through their loving care, are supporting these children to live the most normal life possible, despite a terribly rocky start. Here is a comment from one parent:
We have one child born addicted to drugs and he is now six. As a baby, he had difficulties, he was more needy and less screamy…as long as you had him in your arms, he was content. We never put him down for long. He slept with me on the couch, we laid him on our legs to change him. He wanted to touch us all the time, so we let him. He was sickly, with feeding issues, and breathing issues, had multiple surgeries and procedures, was on meds daily for over four years for different issues and was diagnosed with ADHD at age one by his neurologist. He is very active. He has trouble paying attention. But do you know what? He is the light of my life, quite possibly the sweetest child I have ever met. Caring and loving and thoughtful. No, he can’t pay attention in a regular school setting, and yes, during homeschool he does read while hanging upside down off the back of the couch, but he can read. And he is so smart! He loves life and loves people, is helpful, likes to bake cookies and do chores!
While it’s easy to vilify the mothers of these precious infants suffering so much; so early on, it’s also important to remember that drug addiction is an illness. Hopefully, these support and cuddle programs can support babies and their mothers to heal the trauma that caused the problems they were trying to fix with drugs. Fortunately, we have the ability to help, as the antidote is the simplest thing possible – love – the one thing we all know how to give. Even if it may be a little flawed or imperfect, we can all share love and cuddles.
If you feel moved to help you could contact your own local hospital and offer your services. You could also check with women and children’s shelters in your communities to see if they need support with families of moms battling addiction.
Some examples of places that take volunteers are below.
Here is a list of participating hospitals in the US:
The Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, in Philadelphia, has a four-hour training course for cuddler volunteers.
The Boston Medical Center has a program called CALM – Cuddling Assists in Lowering Maternal and Infant Stress.
Australian participating hospitals:
Sunshine Hospital, Victoria
These lists are compiled as a guide only and may not be up to date or completely accurate. Please check with your local hospital or women’s outreach for programs near you.