Newborn Buprenorphine Abstinence: Standard of Care

First Posted 2/1/2014

The topic of newborn abstinence syndrome from buprenorphine provokes strong emotions.  Expectant mothers anticipate harsh attitudes from doctors and nurses.  They worry that their use of buprenorphine will cause their babies to suffer from withdrawal.  They hear about the experiences of women reported to CPS after delivery, or whose babies were kept on inpatient opioid tapers for weeks.

A member of SuboxForum recently wrote that the hospital she planned to use, in downstate NY, required mothers on buprenorphine to sign a formal policy regarding the care of their newborn infants.  The policy stated that all babies of mothers on buprenorphine must go to the NICU for at least 10 days after delivery, regardless of condition. Mothers were not allowed to refuse that level of treatment for any reason.

Last week, one of my buprenorphine patients came to her appointment with her 5-day-old baby, after both she and her baby left the hospital less than 48 hours after delivery.   Her discharge struck me as premature, not because of anything to do with buprenorphine, but because new moms are frequently anemic and sleep-deprived and can use a bit of rest before taking on an infant’s schedule.

How can the ‘standard of care’ vary so greatly?  What role does insurance coverage play in decisions about opioid tapers, NICU admissions, and discharge schedules?  After having dozens of patients go through the process uneventfully without intervention by neonatologists, I wonder if newborns are always positively served by their interventions. I also question the wisdom of using opioid agonists to taper from a long-half-life, partial agonist, i.e. buprenorphine.

In blinded studies, only half of babies born to women on buprenorphine show objective signs of ‘withdrawal’, which is a misleading word for describing the experience of an infant.  I have no doubt that in the typical non-blinded nursery, neonatal abstinence symptoms are grossly over-diagnosed.  Mothers on buprenorphine describe a biased diagnostic approach to their newborns, where babies who cry are ‘too agitated’, and babies who sleep are ‘too sedated’.

In the case of babies who truly show symptoms of NAS, do the symptoms always warrant ten days in the NICU?  Is a baby distressed by mild neonatal abstinence better off in mom’s lap nursing with breast milk containing small amounts of buprenorphine, or lying alone in a plastic incubator under fluorescent lights, with multiple IV lines? Some docs and nurses in my area allow moms on buprenorphine to nurse, a policy that makes sense from an anatomical and developmental perspective.   As the baby’s liver matures, ingested buprenorphine is eventually completely destroyed through first-pass metabolism.  The process allows for a gradual, natural taper, without the misery and cost of IV infusions and monitoring systems.

Decisions about monitoring and discharge should, of course, revolve around safety.  I question whether the various approaches to buprenorphine abstinence in the newborn are based on informed, intellectual consideration, or are instead liability-motivated rules supported by ‘best guesses’ by people who don’t understand buprenorphine.  Given the 180-degree difference between the approaches of different hospital systems, somebody is clearly doing it wrong.

I’ve griped about how research studies about drug addiction are so-often focused on demographics, where the data does more to describe the past than to improve care going forward.  The best approach to babies born to mothers on buprenorphine should be near the top of the list for research funds.  The hard part of such studies will be identifying (and following) the conclusions that are derived from science, vs. those that come from concerns about litigation, where the costliest and most-intense treatments always win out.