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Moms’ cooing swapped with morphine for newborns in withdrawal


Four years ago, Atrium Health, in Charlotte, N.C., embarked on a dramatic change in how it cares for newborns exposed to opioids in the womb.

Until then, most of the 700 or so babies who underwent opioid withdrawal each year in the hospital system spent their first weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), isolated from their parents and treated with regular doses of morphine to ease their symptoms.

Now, most babies stay in the hospital for just a few days under a new approach called Eat, Sleep, Console. These young patients stay in private rooms where they can bond with their parents and volunteer caregivers. The usual course of treatment is no longer extended therapy with opioid replacements. Instead, mothers are encouraged to stay overnight and are taught how to sooth their babies with swaddling, rocking, and cooing.

As a result, the average length of stay for newborns with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) has dropped from 12 days to 6. Use of morphine has fallen by 79%, from 2.25 to 0.45 mg/kg per stay, according to results of a quality improvement pilot project at one of Atrium’s community hospitals.

Similar outcomes from other hospitals around the country have led to widespread uptake of Eat, Sleep, Console since its advent in 2017. That year, according to federal data, seven newborns were diagnosed with NAS for every 1,000 births.

Advocates say the family-centric model helps parents feel less stigmatized and more confident in their ability to care for their babies, who can have symptoms such as irritability and difficulty feeding for months.

The approach “really empowers families to do what they do best, which is take care of each other,” Douglas Dodds, MD, a pediatrician who led the effort at Atrium, told this news organization.

Questioning the old protocols

Numerous state perinatal collaboratives, hospital associations, and health systems say the program is the new standard of care for infants with NAS and neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS).

Twenty-six hospitals have adopted Eat, Sleep, Console as part of a clinical trial sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and a program called Advancing Clinical Trials in Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal Syndrome (ACT NOW). Researchers are comparing the approach to previous care protocols in regard to 12 outcomes, including time to medical readiness for discharge, frequency of opioid replacement therapy, and safety problems, such as seizures during treatment.

The transition has been swift. Less than a decade ago, most hospitals used the Finnegan Neonatal Abstinence Scoring System, which was developed in the 1970s to assess babies whose mothers had used heroin during pregnancy.

The Finnegan score entails monitoring babies every 3 hours for 21 symptoms, including high-pitched crying, sneezing, gastrointestinal problems, and yawning. If a baby scores an 8 or more three times in a row, most protocols using the traditional Finnegan approach recommend that providers move infants to an NICU, where they receive morphine or methadone. Once opioid replacement therapy is started, the protocols require a gradual weaning that lasts 3-4 weeks.

As the opioid epidemic grew and NICUs around the country began to fill with babies experiencing NAS or NOW, some clinicians began to question the Finnegan-driven approach.

“You have these miserable babies who are going through this really tough experience, and our first move is to separate them from their moms,” said Matthew Grossman, MD, a pediatric hospitalist at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital, New Haven, Conn., who created Eat, Sleep, Console.

Dr. Grossman, associate professor and vice chair for quality in the department of pediatrics at Yale University, said he noticed that when mothers stayed overnight with their babies, the infants tended to have fewer withdrawal symptoms. Indeed, previous studies had demonstrated the benefits of breastfeeding and allowing mothers and babies to share a room.

“If you think of mom as a medicine, then you can’t put the baby in a unit where the mom can’t be there,” Dr. Grossman told this news organization. “It would be like taking a kid with pneumonia and putting him in a unit that doesn’t have antibiotics.”

Despite its prominence, the Finnegan score has never been validated for guiding the treatment of NAS. In addition, Finnegan scores can be inconsistent, and the assessment requires disturbing an infant to check signs such as its startle reflex, which, as Dr. Grossman and his fellow researchers pointed out, flies in the face of American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations to prioritize swaddling and minimize stimulation for infants with NAS.

By contrast, Eat, Sleep, Console offers a simplified assessment. Interventions are called for if a baby eats less than an ounce of food at a time/does not breastfeed, sleeps less than an hour at a stretch, or takes more than 10 minutes to be consoled. After nonpharmacologic interventions have been tried, doses of medication are used as needed. Babies who are doing well can be discharged in as few as 4 days.


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