Neonatal abstinence syndrome in Anchorage, Alaska

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Babies who have experienced addictive drugs and medications while in utero may experience neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), and both they and their families deserve proper care to ensure positive life outcomes.

The neonatal abstinence evaluation support and treatment (NEST) program at Alaska Regional Hospital is the only one of its kind in Alaska, taking a family-centered approach that focuses on more aggressive comforting techniques, caring for NAS symptoms with minimal medications and strengthening parent-child bonding.

For more information about NAS, or our NEST program, call our 24/7 Consult-A-Nurse® line.

What is neonatal abstinence syndrome?

Substance abuse is a major issue in Alaska, and the effects on babies with addicted parents can be staggering. All hospitals are required by law to report a positive drug screen on any mother or child to the Alaska Office of Children’s Services (OCS). OCS involvement and actions are beyond our control, though our substance recovery social workers are a primary source of assistance as families work through the complexities of OCS involvement.

Neonatal abstinence syndrome occurs when a pregnant woman takes opiate or narcotic drugs such as codeine, heroin, hydrocodone or oxycodone, as well as alcohol, marijuana or nicotine. When these substances pass through the placenta, the baby becomes addicted with the mother.

There are several common neonatal abstinence syndrome symptoms that can occur when the newborn is no longer exposed to these drugs after birth. Withdrawal is the most common, but other symptoms include:

  • Convulsions
  • Diarrhea
  • High-pitched crying
  • Irritability
  • Refusal to eat
  • Runny nose
  • Seizures
  • Sleep problems
  • Tremors
  • Vomiting

Symptoms can fall anywhere on this vast spectrum, so it can be difficult to know where, or even if, an infant will fall.

NEST services

The first of its kind in Alaska, and one of only a handful in the United States, the four-bed NEST program at Alaska Regional takes a comprehensive, holistic approach to NAS. Operating in conjunction with our neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), rather than simply administering decreasing levels of morphine to wean infants off drugs, we create an open, non-shaming recovery environment for the whole family. Here, respect, honesty and diversity are highly valued. By structuring care in this way, patients are less likely to be NEST patients in the future.

Caring for over 30 babies each year, what makes our program stand out is that when a baby comes in, they are given their own nurse, something practically unheard of in this space.

Our high nurse-to-patient ratio and staff expertise means each baby receives safe, medically controlled detoxification and withdrawal management. Our dedicated team of physicians and nurse practitioners are trained and board-certified in neonatology, and also provide supportive treatment and counseling to parents recovering from substance abuse.

Private room benefits

NAS care at Alaska Regional is conducted in an environment that simulates a home nursery, rather than a sterile hospital. Features include low lighting and reduced sound so families can have an extra level of comfort. Mobiles bobble above large cribs, switches make clear windows opaque and noise-dampening tiles create a more serene environment. Rocking chairs and spots for sleeping encourage not just visitation, but complete bonding and participation from mothers and fathers.

As such, each private space includes sleeping accommodations for one parent. Keeping moms and dads with their children is a key element to NEST's success, and we work with partners in the community to connect moms with the help they need to keep their babies and make sure they’re in safe homes.