Moms' Cooing Swapped With Morphine for Newborns in Withdrawal

Mary Chris Jaklevic

July 18, 2022

Four years ago, Atrium Health, in Charlotte, North Carolina, embarked on a dramatic change in how it cares for newborns exposed to opioids in the womb.

Until then, most of the 700 or so babies who underwent opioid withdrawal each year in the hospital system spent their first weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), isolated from their parents and treated with regular doses of morphine to ease their symptoms.

Now, most babies stay in the hospital for just a few days under a new approach called Eat, Sleep, Console. These young patients stay in private rooms where they can bond with their parents and volunteer caregivers. The usual course of treatment is no longer extended therapy with opioid replacements. Instead, mothers are encouraged to stay overnight and are taught how to sooth their babies with swaddling, rocking, and cooing.

As a result, the average length of stay for newborns with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) has dropped from 12 days to 6. Use of morphine has fallen by 79%, from 2.25 to 0.45 mg/kg per stay, according to results of a quality improvement pilot project at one of Atrium's community hospitals.

Similar outcomes from other hospitals around the country have led to widespread uptake of Eat, Sleep, Console since its advent in 2017. That year, according to federal data, seven newborns were diagnosed with NAS for every 1000 births.

Advocates say the family-centric model helps parents feel less stigmatized and more confident in their ability to care for their babies, who can have symptoms such as irritability and difficulty feeding for months.

The approach "really empowers families to do what they do best, which is take care of each other," Douglas Dodds, MD, a pediatrician who led the effort at Atrium, told Medscape Medical News.

Questioning the Old Protocols

Numerous state perinatal collaboratives, hospital associations, and health systems say the program is the new standard of care for infants with NAS and neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS).

Twenty-six hospitals have adopted Eat, Sleep, Console as part of a clinical trial sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and a program called Advancing Clinical Trials in Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal Syndrome (ACT NOW). Researchers are comparing the approach to previous care protocols in regard to 12 outcomes, including time to medical readiness for discharge, frequency of opioid replacement therapy, and safety problems, such as seizures during treatment.

The transition has been swift. Less than a decade ago, most hospitals used the Finnegan Neonatal Abstinence Scoring System, which was developed in the 1970s to assess babies whose mothers had used heroin during pregnancy.

The Finnegan score entails monitoring babies every 3 hours for 21 symptoms, including high-pitched crying, sneezing, gastrointestinal problems, and yawning. If a baby scores an 8 or more three times in a row, most protocols using the traditional Finnegan approach recommend that providers move infants to an NICU, where they receive morphine or methadone. Once opioid replacement therapy is started, the protocols require a gradual weaning that lasts 3 to 4 weeks.

As the opioid epidemic grew and NICUs around the country began to fill with babies experiencing NAS or NOW, some clinicians began to question the Finnegan-driven approach.

You have these miserable babies who are going through this really tough experience, and our first move is to separate them from their moms. Dr Matthew Grossman

"You have these miserable babies who are going through this really tough experience, and our first move is to separate them from their moms," said Matthew Grossman, MD, a pediatric hospitalist at Yale New Haven Children's Hospital, New Haven, Connecticut, who created Eat, Sleep, Console.

Dr Matthew Grossman

Grossman, an associate professor and vice chair for quality in the Department of Pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine, said he noticed that when mothers stayed overnight with their babies, the infants tended to have fewer withdrawal symptoms. Indeed, previous studies had demonstrated the benefits of breastfeeding and allowing mothers and babies to share a room.

"If you think of mom as a medicine, then you can't put the baby in a unit where the mom can't be there," Grossman told Medscape Medical News. "It would be like taking a kid with pneumonia and putting him in a unit that doesn't have antibiotics."

Despite its prominence, the Finnegan score has never been validated for guiding the treatment of NAS. In addition, Finnegan scores can be inconsistent, and the assessment requires disturbing an infant to check signs such as its startle reflex, which, as Grossman and his fellow researchers pointed out, flies in the face of American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendations to prioritize swaddling and minimize stimulation for infants with NAS.

By contrast, Eat, Sleep, Console offers a simplified assessment. Interventions are called for if a baby eats less than an ounce of food at a time/does not breastfeed, sleeps less than an hour at a stretch, or takes more than 10 minutes to be consoled. After nonpharmacologic interventions have been tried, doses of medication are used as needed. Babies who are doing well can be discharged in as few as 4 days.

Quashing Bias Against Parents With Substance Abuse Disorder

Even with the promise of shorter stays and better care, switching to nonpharmacologic care presents hurdles for hospitals. Among these is a lack of physical space for mothers to room with their babies in a quiet environment.

"In many community hospitals, the only place for infants to go is a neonatal intensive care unit, outside of the newborn nursery," said Stephen Patrick, MD, MPH, an associate professor and director of the Center for Child Health Policy at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Nashville, who researches stigma associated with opioid use during pregnancy.

Dr Kimberly Spence

Administrators at SSM St. Mary's Hospital in St. Louis initially balked at providing private rooms for mothers and their babies with NAS and NOWS, according to Kimberly Spence, MD, a neonatologist at SSM Health. She said the initial plan was to put the babies in a busy, brightly lit nursery.

But resistance waned as the hospital convinced health plans to pay for private rooms for the 5 to 7 days it typically takes a baby to go through withdrawal, said Spence, an associate professor of pediatrics at St. Louis University School of Medicine, Missouri.

"We were able to provide enough data that this is evidence-based medicine and babies do better with their moms, and that ethically, this is the right thing to do, to reduce transfers to an NICU," she said.

In addition, news stories about the family-centric approach and shorter stays for infants, along with SSM's launch of an outpatient clinic to treat pregnant women with opioid use disorder, helped the system to attract more patients and increase its market share, said Spence.

Another challenge was getting physicians and nurses to set aside any judgments of parents with substance abuse disorder, according to Grossman and others.

"A lot of faculty and staff on the medical team didn't feel like we should trust moms with their babies' medical care" at SSM, Spence said.

Some hospitals conduct anti-bias training to teach providers that substance abuse is a disease that deserves proper medical treatment and not the moral failing of a patient. Such education may involve explaining that babies' outcomes are improved when women undergo treatment with methadone or buprenorphine during pregnancy, even though use of those medications does pose a risk of NAS.

Creating a system that supports parents with substance abuse disorders may help to change perceptions. At Atrium Health, some staff members now enjoy working with these families because they can make a profound impact, Dodds said. He said they've learned that families suffering from substance abuse disorder "are not that different than any other family."

Dodds, Patrick, Spence, and Grossman reported no relevant financial relationships.

Mary Chris Jaklevic is a healthcare journalist in the Midwest.

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