Suboxone Withdrawal in Newborns

One of the top search terms for Suboxone relates to pregnancy, and fear that the baby will experience withdrawal; official name ‘neonatal abstinence syndrome.’  I wrote this post a couple years ago, and I think it is worth reposting. Since the first time around, several studies have shown that withdrawal symptoms occur in about half of babies born to mothers on buprenorphine. The symptoms, when they do occur, tend to be milder than the symptoms in babies born to mothers on methadone or other opioid agonists.

Headlines grasp for attention with words like ‘addicted babies.’ Realize that there are many differences between physiological dependence and addiction to substances. For example, people who take Effexor are dependent– and will have significant discontinuation-emergent side effects– but they are not ‘addicted’, which consists of a mental obsession for a substance. The same is true of beta-blockers, in that discontinuation results in rebound hypertension, but there is no craving for propranolol when it is stopped abruptly.

We have no idea of the ‘cravings’ experienced by a newborn, but I cannot imagine a newborn having the cortical connections required to experience anything akin to the ‘cravings’ experienced by opiate addicts, which consist of memories of using and positive reinforcement of behavior—things that are NOT part of the experience ‘in utero’.

It is also important to realize that the withdrawal experienced by addicts consists of little actual ‘pain’ (I’ve been there—I know). Addicts talk about this subject often, as in ‘why do we hate withdrawal so much?’ It is not physical pain, but rather the discomfort of involuntary movements of the limbs, depression, and very severe shame and guilt. The normal newborn already has such involuntary movements as the result of incomplete myelination of spinal nerve tracts and immature basal ganglia and cerebellar function in the brain. And the worst part of withdrawal—the shame and guilt and hopelessness—are not experienced in the same degree in a baby who has no understanding of the stigma of addiction!

Finally, if we look at the ‘misery’ experienced by a newborn, we should compare it to the misery experienced by being a newborn in general. I doubt it feels good to have one’s head squeezed so hard that it changes shape—yet nobody gets real excited about THAT discomfort—at least not from the baby’s perspective! I also doubt it feels good to have one’s head squeezed by a pair of forceps, and then be pulled by the head through the birth canal! Many hospitals still do circumcisions without local, instead just tying down the limbs and cutting. Babies having surgery for pyloric stenosis are often intubated ‘awake’, as the standard of care– which anyone who understands intubation knows is not a pleasant experience. And up until a couple decades ago—i.e. the 1980s (!), babies had surgery on the heart, including splitting open the sternum or breaking ribs, with a paralytic agent only, as the belief was that a baby with a heart defect wouldn’t tolerate narcotics or anesthetic. I don’t like making a baby experience the heightened autonomic activity that can be associated with abstinence syndrome, but compared to other elements of the birth experience, I know which I would choose!

My points are twofold, and are not intended to encourage more births of physiogically-dependent babies. But everyone in the field should be aware of the very clear difference between physiological dependence and addiction, as the difference is a basic principle that is not a matter of opinion—but rather the need to get one’s definitions right. Second, the cycle of addiction and shame has been well established, and there is already plenty of shame inside of most addicted mothers. If there are ten babies screaming loudly, only the whimper from the ‘addict baby’ elicits the ‘tsk tsk’ of the nurses and breast feeding consultants. My first child was born to a healthy mom years before my own opiate dependence, and he never took to breast feeding; he his mother been an addict, his trouble surely would have been blamed on ‘addiction’ or ‘withdrawal’. Unfortunately even medical people see what they want to see—and sometimes that view needs to be checked for bias due to undeserved stigma—for EVERYONE’S good, baby included.

Addendum:  Another of my posts, including a response to a mother’s comments and several references, can be found here.

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