How best to treat opioids’ youngest sufferers? No one knows

Two babies, born 15 months apart to the same young woman overcoming opioid addiction. Two very different treatments.

Sarah Sherbert’s first child was whisked away to a hospital special-care nursery for two weeks of treatment for withdrawal from doctor-prescribed methadone that her mother continued to use during her pregnancy. Nurses hesitated to let Sherbert hold the girl and hovered nervously when she visited to breast-feed.

Born just 15 months later and 30 miles away at a different South Carolina hospital, Sherbert’s second child was started on medicine even before he showed any withdrawal symptoms and she was allowed to keep him in her room to encourage breast-feeding and bonding. His hospital stay was just a week.

“It was like night and day,” Sherbert said.

The different approaches highlight a sobering fact: The surge has outpaced the science, and no one knows the best way to treat the opioid epidemic’s youngest patients.

Trying to cope with the rising numbers of affected infants, hospitals around the United States are taking a scattershot approach to treating the tremors, hard-to-soothe crying, diarrhea and other hallmark symptoms of newborn abstinence syndrome.

“It’s a national problem,” said Dr. Lori Devlin, a University of Louisville newborn specialist. “There’s no gold-standard treatment.”

With help from $1 million in National Institutes of Health funding, researchers are seeking to change that by identifying the practices that could lead to a national standard for evidence-based treatment. A rigorous multi-center study comparing treatments and outcomes in hard-hit areas could start by the end of this year, said Dr. Matthew Gillman, who is helping lead the effort.

“When there’s so much variability in practice, not everyone can be doing the very best thing,” Gillman said.

Once the umbilical cord is cut, babies born to opioid users are at risk for developing withdrawal symptoms. By some estimates, one infant is born with the condition in the…

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