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Learning About Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS)

What is neonatal abstinence syndrome?

Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) is a set of problems that may affect a child if the mother used certain drugs during pregnancy. These drugs may include prescription medicines. The drugs pass through the placenta and enter the baby's bloodstream. They affect the baby in much the same way as they affect the mother. The baby's body gets used to the drug. After birth, when the drug starts to leave the body, the baby goes through withdrawal. This may happen within hours after birth or later, depending on the drug.

This condition is also called neonatal withdrawal syndrome.

NAS is caused by legal or illegal drugs that lead to substance use disorder. Some examples are heroin, methadone, morphine, buprenorphine, and hydromorphone. It's important to tell your baby's doctor what drugs you took, how much you took, and when you took them. This can help the doctor give your baby the best care possible.

Babies with NAS may be irritable and jittery. They may cry a lot and have problems feeding and sleeping. This can be stressful for you and your baby. But most babies recover after the body has rid itself of the drug. The length of time it takes for the body to get rid of the drug depends on the drug and how much is in the body.

Treatment will help keep your baby from getting worse while the drug is still in the body.

Your baby may need special care, such as being in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). This may be scary for you. But the hospital staff understands this. They will explain what happens and will answer your questions.

How is it treated?

  • The NICU staff will closely watch your baby. Your baby may get fluids and oxygen if needed.
  • The doctor may give medicine to ease the effects of withdrawal and make your baby more comfortable. The medicine may be given by mouth or through a blood vessel. Your baby may be given less of the medicine over time to allow the body to adjust.

What can you expect?

  • You may see tubes and wires attached to your baby. This can be scary to see. But these things help the doctor treat your baby. The tubes supply air, fluid, and medicines to your baby. The wires are attached to machines that help the doctor keep track of your baby's vital signs. These include temperature, blood pressure, breathing rate, and pulse rate.
  • It's hard to be apart from your baby, especially when you worry about his or her condition. Know that the hospital staff is well prepared to care for babies with this condition. They will do everything they can to help. If you need it, ask for support from friends and family. You can also ask the hospital staff about counselling and support.

Follow-up care is a key part of your child's treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if your child is having problems. It's also a good idea to know your child's test results and keep a list of the medicines your child takes.

Where can you learn more?

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