What is Neonatal Withdrawal?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Neonatal withdrawal is a constellation of symptoms in an infant with drug addiction or dependence caused either by exposure to addictive substances in utero, or use of such substances in a therapeutic context after birth. This condition can be dangerous, just as withdrawal in adults can cause severe physical and psychological problems. The patient usually needs to stay in a hospital setting for treatment until a doctor can clear him for release.

Babies with neonatal withdrawal may have shrill cries.
Babies with neonatal withdrawal may have shrill cries.

When women use addictive substances, ranging from narcotics to tobacco, during pregnancy, their babies may develop addiction and can experience withdrawal symptoms after birth. Children born with medical problems who need analgesia or sedation after birth can also develop dependence, especially if these treatments are used for an extended period of time. Babies with neonatal withdrawal may have shrill cries, restlessness, sweats, fevers, and gastrointestinal problems, depending on the nature of the substance.

Also known as neonatal abstinence syndrome, neonatal withdrawal is treatable. When doctors have to give addictive substances to a baby to provide care, they are careful about dosing and wean the baby off the medications slowly, rather than stopping them abruptly. This can help patients adjust to life without the medications. In some cases, other drugs may be available to treat an infant while she is taken off the addictive medications if she experiences severe side effects of withdrawal.

When doctors know an infant has a prenatal history of drug exposure, they can assess the baby after birth to determine what kind of treatment they need to provide. They may also meet with the mother; a woman who has to take narcotics for pain management during pregnancy, for example, may participate in treatment and recovery for her infant. Options can include medications to treat withdrawal symptoms, such as sedatives to help the baby stay calm. Health care providers will monitor the patient for signs of complications like seizures or an unstable heart rate so they can provide interventions in a timely fashion.

In addition to providing physical medical care during neonatal withdrawal, hospitals also recommend psychological care. Infants often benefit from being held and rocked when they are experiencing severe side effects. Parents may be encouraged to sit with their children and interact with them during the hospitalization. Stimulation like bright toys and interesting noises may also be part of therapy, to give the infant something to focus on as a distraction.

In cases where neonatal withdrawal is the result of prenatal drug exposure caused by recreational drug use, a social worker may evaluate the situation to determine if the patient should return to his parents, or be placed in a foster home.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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