Withdrawal Symptoms in Babies & the Healing Power of Hugs

At some point in your life, you have felt the power of a hug during a tough time. There’s something so comforting about feeling someone’s arms wrapped around you, letting you know that things will be okay.

That is what one volunteer program at Firelands is striving to do for babies born in the Center for Women & Newborns with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). NAS is when the baby is getting an addictive substance, such as opioids, from the mom and is going through withdrawal symptoms after birth. 

Holly Myers, DNP, RN, CNE
Holly Myers, DNP, RN, CNE, faculty with the Firelands School of Nursing, was going through a doctorate program in which she had to develop a program that would make an impact for the community. She previously worked in the OB department at Firelands Regional Medical Center for a number of years and knew that the number of babies born addicted to opioids was on the rise.

In 2017, there were 25 babies that were born addicted to opioids in the Center for Women & Newborns at Firelands, compared to 15 babies in 2016. That is when Holly decided to develop the Hugging Helpers volunteer program, working with Anne McGookey, director of volunteer services, and Amanda Charlton, charge nurse for the Center for Women & Newborns.

According to Holly, these babies need more care than most babies born in the Center for Women & Newborns. They are experiencing withdrawal symptoms, often have a high-pitched cry, are very fussy, and their bodies are stiff. Evidence- based practices show that best care for these babies include rocking, swaddling, and shushing. In addition, these babies require a longer stay in the newborn nursery. In Ohio, the average length of stay for these types of babies is roughly 14–20 days, dependent on the baby’s symptoms. For babies not born addicted to opioids, the average stay is 2–3 days.

What is Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome and Associated Withdrawal Symptoms?

When a pregnant woman uses drugs, they can pass from the mother's blood stream through the placenta, into the baby's blood stream. After the baby is born, they are born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, which is a group of problems a baby may experience when withdrawing from exposure to narcotics, such as opiates.

The most common withdrawal symptoms a baby may experience include:

  • Tremors (trembling)
  • Irritability (excessive crying)
  • Sleep problems
  • High-pitched crying
  • Tight muscle tone (stiffness)
  • Hyperactive reflexes
  • Seizures
  • Yawning, stuffy nose, and sneezing
  • Poor feeding and suck
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Sweating
  • Fever or unstable temperature

When a pregnant woman uses drugs, she's also putting her baby at greater risk for birth defects, poor intrauterine growth, and premature birth. However some babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome who are born premature had less time to be exposed to the drugs, and therefore may experience fewer withdrawal symptoms or less severe withdrawal symptoms.

Sarah Henkel, director of safety & security at Firelands

“We have people that want to hold babies and babies that need to be held,” Holly said, stating that we provided extensive training for all of the Hugging Helpers that included not only how to care for these babies but also how to communicate with the parents and families. 

"We all want to be held when we don’t feel good,” Anne said of why this program is important for the babies going through withdrawal symptoms. 

Ginny Browne of Vermilion is one of the Hugging Helpers. She became involved when her niece, Sarah Henkel, director of safety & security at Firelands and also a Hugging Helpers volunteer, told her about the program.

“I love babies,” Ginny said. “I love snuggling babies, too. This was right up my alley.” 

“I couldn’t imagine babies at their most vulnerable not having someone to snuggle with,” Sarah said of why she got involved, “especially if that baby is struggling with withdrawal or in pain.”

The program has also expanded to the pediatric department at Firelands. If there is a young child whose parents or caregiver are unavailable, a Hugging Helpers volunteer is called in, providing another layer of care for the smallest patients here at Firelands.

"I was called in for a baby that had RSV,” Ginny said. “I read the baby a story and we snuggled.” 

“There is more power in a hug than in a thousand meaningful words,” Holly said. “I am grateful that Firelands has supported my passion in caring for the most vulnerable members of our community.”

Firelands Counseling & Recovery Services provides a variety of substance abuse and behavioral health services, including mental illness diagnosis and treatment, gambling addiction treatment, alcohol and drug addiction treatment, a drug and alcohol hotline, and more. Learn more about Firelands Counseling & Recovery Services or explore mental health and drug counseling jobs available at one of our 11 locations today.