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Number of drug-dependent babies up sharply as clinicians look for treatment solutions

Feet of new born baby under ultraviolet lamp in the incubator_288999

Feet of new born baby under ultraviolet lamp in the incubator

CRANSTON, RI (WPRI) — Ten-month-old Jayce smiled while he stacked some blocks, and giggled when he knock them down recently – as his mom captured the moment on video.

Judging from his grin, you’d never guess he faced a gut-wrenching struggle during his first few weeks of life.

Clinicians who are helping wean babies from heroin and other drugs say funding and other issues have limited research about what Jayce’s next few years will bring as far as behavior and development.

“Right now,” his mom Nicole said while holding Jayce, “He’s beautiful.”

Jayce was born with what is known as Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome or NAS, a condition that Nicole said her son struggled with for about a month, as he was weaned from heroin’s grip. NAS can last longer in some infants, and it does not strike every child whose mom uses drugs during the pregnancy.

The most recent set of statistics from the Rhode Island Department of Health show just under 10 babies per 1,000 were born with NAS in 2014, down slightly from 11 per thousand from the first quarter of that year. But the total nearly doubled the 4.4 per 1,000 rate from 2005.

You just feel like the lowest person on earth, allowing your innocent newborn baby to go through that. It’s horrible.” Nicole – Jayce’s mom

When Nicole got pregnant, she was on methadone, trying to kick heroin. Methadone would’ve also impacted Jayce’s first few weeks, but then she relapsed.

“I used heroin,” she said. “I was very sick, and that got me involved with DCYF.”

NAS babies are said to go from 0 to 60, fast; Screaming, with virtually no way to calm them.

Brown University Professor Barry Lester is head of the Center for the Study of Children at Risk at Brown and Women and Infants Hospital. He said there are natural ways to help a baby live without drugs, including acupuncture.

He is currently conducting a clinical trial to potentially determine whether Methadone or Morphine works best in helping ease the grip the drug has on NAS sufferers.

Either way, Lester said the process is heartbreaking, with the child enduring about 25 symptoms including extreme irritability, muscle stiffness, vomiting and what Lester called a distinctive high-pitched cry.

“This high pitched cry,”  he said. “We know how to define a pain cry. This is a pain cry. You put the baby on your shoulder and rock him like you would do. Instead of kind of snuggling into your shoulder and relaxing, they’ll arch, they’ll push back.”

Nicole and Jayce currently live at the SSTARbirth facility in Cranston, the only Rhode Island option offering housing for the infant and their mother in recovery from drug addiction. The program provides 12 spots, with daycare for the baby while the mom goes through a variety of counseling sessions and treatment.

Nicole is leery that some might judge her, since she has a hard time not judging herself.


“You just feel like the lowest person on earth, allowing your innocent newborn baby to go through that. It’s horrible. I don’t know how I ever could do it again and again,” she said. “I cried daily when he was in the hospital. I would wake up in the middle of the night and have nightmares, and just jump in my car and go to the hospital.”

Program director Diane Gouveia hopes the general public will hold back their potentially harsh judgment of the moms.

“These women want to do well, they want to parent their children, they want to work, they want to live a healthier life,” Gouveia said.

Gouveia said the seemingly low number of available beds for the mother and their child is less of a concern – than medical plan limits on length of stay. She said some plans are covering only six months or less.

Gouveia insists while that will save money in the short run, it will cost more when relapses involve prison time for the mom and a stay in state custody for the child.

“We’re going to be paying in many other ways and, in my opinion, a much greater cost in the long run than what we’re trying to do now,” Gouveia said, adding that a year of treatment is more likely to help mothers stay clean.

As far as what we know about the long-term impact of NAS, Lester was blunt.

“Nothing,” he said, shaking his head. “There are no long-term follow-up studies, specifically of babies with NAS.”

He believes one reason for the lack of research is drug-dependent babies were once just an inner-city problem, but not anymore.

“What we’re seeing now is something that cuts across all social classes, all races,” Lester said.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at and follow him on Twitter@wbuteau

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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