Across the country and in Illinois, in particular, the number of newborn babies who experience withdrawal from drugs used by their expectant mothers, particularly opioids, is skyrocketing. 

A recent analysis of Illinois Department of Public Health data by Crain’s Chicago Business showed that in 2016 “nearly 3 of every 1,000 babies born in Illinois went through withdrawal, known as neonatal abstinence syndrome.” And that rate has “increased 53 percent over six years.” 

Typically, when babies show signs of withdrawal, they’re immediately separated from their mothers and given methadone or morphine to help gradually wean them off of the drugs inside of their systems. 

The process can take anywhere from two weeks to one to two months — much longer and more expensive than the two-day hospital stay for infants who don’t have the syndrome. 

But that might be changing, albeit gradually, as more and more hospitals seek ways to treat babies with withdrawal symptoms that are less reliant on pharmacological intervention and more reliant on the simple, yet powerful, bond between a mother and her child. 

The power of that bond was on display on July 3 at West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park, when the first participant in the prenatal substance abuse treatment program — a collaboration between the hospital and PCC Community Wellness —gave birth.  

Unlike in most cases when a mother gives birth to a baby experiencing withdrawal, this mother was allowed to stay with her baby. At the hospital, they both began the long road to recovery together. 

“We now realize that one of the best methods for treating withdrawal is to have moms and babies in the same room with each other — don’t separate them,” said Robbin Uchison, the nursing director at West Suburban’s Family Birth Place.  

Uchison said studies show that babies experiencing withdrawal spend less time in the hospital recovering when they’re with their mothers. 

“We try to get moms to understand, for instance, that when they’re breastfeeding their baby, it helps ease the withdrawal,” she said, adding that this may not be an option if the mother is addicted to a substance that’s bought off of the street, such as heroin. “We try to put many of the moms on either methadone or suboxone [which are treatment medications].”

The baby delivered on July 3, she said, is a testimony in the method’s success. 

“Before this initiative, we had to put the baby in the nursery and the mom elsewhere. This time, the mom stayed with the baby, we didn’t give any medications for withdrawal and the baby went home only after five or six days,” Uchison said. 

Uchison said the hospital is still required to report to the Department of Children and Family Services when they diagnose babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome from illicit drugs, such as heroin, cocaine and PCP, but this mandated reporting requirement, she said, doesn’t require them to separate mothers from their newborn children while in the hospital.

“Part of the initiative entails us working with DCFS and helping patients understand that DCFS is not always the bad guy,” she said. “They are out there with lots of resources as well. In the future, we hope to be able to invite someone from DCFS to the hospital so we can understand what their process [related to opioid-addicted parents and newborn babies] is and we can help patients understand that process.” 

The prenatal substance abuse treatment program is part of a suite of substance abuse treatment services, including a chemical dependency clinic, offered at the PCC Walk-In Wellness Center located inside of West Suburban Medical Center. The center offers evaluations for people addicted to opioids and other substances, counseling and various treatment methods. 

“The clinic would love to team up with these moms before they’re 32 weeks pregnant and get them off of the heroin and onto suboxone,” she said. 

Amanda Brooks, PCC’s chief population health officer, said that the clinic has treated around 550 patients who have problems related to opioid use, according to a July 6 Chicago Tonight report. She said that the point is to destigmatize opioid treatment. 

“Our goal is to catch them before they deliver, so we’ve got them engaged in behavioral health and medication-assisted treatment,” Brooks said on Chicago Tonight. “There’s so much stigma walking into a methadone clinic when you’re pregnant, and that can be really overwhelming and terrifying. What’s different about PCC is that when you walk into PCC you’re walking into your doctor’s office, so nobody has to know that you’re walking into substance abuse treatment.”

Uchison said that West Suburban has probably seen fewer than two dozen babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome within the past year, but she hopes that the hospital can scale up its efforts treating addicted women going through pregnancy. 

“This is a whole new mindset for us, which is great,” she said. “Things evolve. Addiction, no matter what you’re addicted to, is a hard thing. Sometimes just getting off of it and seeing your way clear of it is very hard. We’re looking forward to helping others who come our way.”