COLORADO SPRINGS — The opioid crisis touches almost all corners of a hospital, including the NICU. At Children's Hospital in Colorado Springs, they have found a method that allows them to help newborns already exposed to opioids, without using drugs like methadone or morphine.
The Eat, Sleep, and Console program looks at how babies typically behave. It tracks how often they eat or sleep, and how long it takes them to calm down. The program then applies that knowledge to opioid exposed infants, and has both parents and volunteers help the child through the process. "My belief is it doesn't matter what medication you use, any of them could be effective, but if we minimize the exposure of the baby to narcotic medication and focus on non-pharmacologic care, we do a better job for the baby," said Dr. Sue Townsend, the attending neonatologist at Children's Hospital. Dr. Townsend said they see around 70 babies exposed to opioids in Colorado Springs every year, and those opioids could be taken by the mother either legally or illegally.
One of the volunteers, Bruce Erickson, said there's around 35 people volunteering at Children's Hospital as "cuddlers." Those are people who hold babies when parents are not available. The "cuddlers" expanded to meet the needs of the Eat, Sleep, and Console program. They do have a slightly different protocol when comes to those infants. "When they start crying, you have to look at the clock, because you have ten minutes to try and get that baby to calm down and go to sleep," said Erickson. If the baby is not asleep after ten minutes, a nurse comes in to help. In addition, volunteers never stand with a baby, the nurse hands the infant to them and will take it from them once the session is completed.
Dr. Townsend said she started seeing the opioid crisis impacting infants in the early 2000's, and they had relied on drugs like methadone or morphine to help the babies through their withdrawals. However, she said the Eat, Sleep, and Console program has produced much better results than the drugs. Dr. Townsend said before the program started, babies would stay in the hospital for an average of 18-22 days and 80% were using medications. Since the program has been in effect, infants stay for an average of 5 days, with less than 30% using medication.
Erickson said he "can't think of anything that is so simple, that has such a positive impact on the baby, on the parents, on the community."
Dr. Townsend said there's still not a lot of long-term data to measure the impact of opioids on these children, and different parenting styles make it even harder to gauge.
What happens next for these families really depends on their unique situation. Parents may need to seek treatment, or could have been taking the opioids legally. At the end of the day, the goal is to keep the family together.