Special volunteers help babies through painful opioid withdrawal


RICHMOND, Ind. — The tiniest victims of the heroin epidemic are getting a helping hand from dedicated volunteers at Reid Health.

In 2015, 54 babies delivered at Reid Health were born dependent on heroin or another opioid. In 2016, 58 babies born at Reid Health faced the same challenge. This is a statistic that speaks to the severity of the heroin epidemic and the innocent infants affected by it. These babies became dependent because their mother abused a drug while pregnant. After they’re born, these little ones face the pain of withdrawal within hours of birth. “Baby Rocker” volunteers are here to make their first days a little better.

Heroin withdrawal is challenging even for adults — individuals who understand the source of the pain and can see the benefit of going through it. Infants, on the other hand, don’t have this understanding. Babies suffer heroin withdrawal in the dark, unaware that the pain will eventually fade.

Each baby’s detox symptoms are different and may require medical interventions like morphine to dampen their discomfort. But pharmacological treatment isn’t enough. Most babies going through withdrawal cry excessively and inconsolably, and need to be swaddled to bring them comfort. Treating the whole person — in this case the whole infant — requires a loving, personal touch.

“These infants need to be cuddled by their caregivers and to feel human touch; you can never underestimate the power of touch for these infants,” said Stephanie Field, Clinical Manager of Women and Children’s Services at Reid Health.

Support for mom, dad and baby at critical time

Addiction is a chronic and complex disorder. Opioid addiction drives a person to destructive choices, like deciding to continue abusing drugs while pregnant. Some addicted expectant mothers are able to seek treatment, but others are not as lucky. These women often arrive at the hospital both in labor and in the darkness of addiction. After delivering her baby, a woman in this situation may begin battling her own monsters — in the form of legal trouble or withdrawal, and be less able to deal with the maternal demands of caring for baby.

On top of it all, hospital stays for an infant going through withdrawal can reach up to 30 days. According to Lacrisha Whitley, RN, Reid Health Mother-Baby Clinical Practice Leader, the length of stay is based on a number of factors. “It’s very individualized. It’s based on what they’re taking, what [drugs] they test positive for, and the gestational age of the baby.” Life must go on for families during this long hospital stay, and sometimes mom and dad need to be away from the hospital to go back to work, or care for other children at home. Nurses on the Mother-Baby unit step in to hold and rock the babies when parents are tired or unavailable.

Volunteers provide TLC to babies in need

This is where volunteers come in, says Becky Jewison, Director of Volunteer Services for Reid Health. “After talking with Stephanie and Lacrisha, I realized we had a big need for volunteers who could help these babies.” Nurses in the Mother-Baby unit are the clinicians primarily responsible for swaddling, rocking, and comforting babies in distress, which they must balance with caring for their other patients.

“Baby Rocker” volunteers help not only the babies in withdrawal, but the nurses too. The volunteers provide an extra set of arms to cuddle infants during this challenging time. Field said having trained rockers “is a blessing to the infants, parents and staff.” The extra personal attention means better care for everyone.

Reid Health’s Baby Rocker Volunteer Program started in November 2015 when a group of 30 volunteers received information and training on how to handle babies in distress. On Valentine’s Day 2016, the program kicked-off in earnest, with volunteers on call 24/7, ready to support the staff, moms, and babies.

Since the program started, staff members on Reid Health’s Mother-Baby Care Unit have seen another positive impact of the program — trained volunteers as positive parenting role models. Parents have the opportunity to see the trained volunteers demonstrating good parenting skills.

“A lot of these young women don’t have a positive role model in their lives,” Whitley said. She said mothers seeing the volunteers care for their baby compliments the education they receive.

She has a positive outlook on the impact this role modeling will have for the babies’ lives outside of Reid Health, “I think this program is going to take a different spin than we thought… It’s about providing, nurturing and bonding for these babies… It’s about helping the staff — and I think it’s going to turn into a lot more than that.”

Staff report

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