As the opioid crisis in New England increases, it is now more important than ever to keep babies and expecting mothers safe. In order to keep these mothers and their babies safe, eight hospitals across the state of New Hampshire are testing a new online tool kit designed to help doctors and nurses care for them, according to a newsletter from Datmouth-Hitchcock.

The new toolkit is a direct result of evidence gained through several studies over the past few years. These findings demonstrated a clear, and desperate need for coordinated, understanding care. The program also encourages patients to halt their smoking habits. A $127,000 grant that Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Prenatal Addiction Treatment Program received from the March of Dimes in 2016 will help fulfill the new program. The program is being put into place in eight hospitals in the region, including Dartmouth Hitchcock and Cheshire Medical Center.

According to an article from the March of Dimes website, the condition is called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). According to an article from National Geographic, opioids pass quickly from a pregnant mother’s bloodstream through the placenta and to the baby. When the baby is born, the flow of the drug is quickly shut down. When this occurs, the baby’s nervous system can trigger the horrible symptoms of withdrawal. The babies shake, sweat, vomit and hold their bodies stiff as planks. Many also need methadone or other medication to relieve their symptoms. They are weaned from it over days or weeks.

Unfortunately, the opioid epidemic in the United States is painfully evident in hospital newborn units across the country. According to the most recent federal data collected from the Pew Research Center, in 2016 nearly 22,000 babies were born drug dependent. That’s one every 25 minutes. Studies conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse at Boston Medical Center show that up to 94 percent of babies exposed to drugs during pregnancy will develop symptoms.

While the number of drug-dependent mothers and babies is steadily increasing, the knowledge of how to treat them has improved significantly as well. According to project coordinator Daisy Goodman, APRN, an advance practice nurse with a specialty in midwifery who works closely with the women in the Perinatal Addiction Treatment Program, the new program really is about compassion and understanding. “We’ve done some hard thinking about treatment versus a punitive approach, and I hope we’re moving as a nation in the direction of treatment and support and healing,” Goodman said. “Women don’t sign up to become addicts, and it’s very important to keep that in mind when caring for them.”

Coming up on year two of the new program, there is an optimistic outlook. Having focused on improving the quality of care in the neonatal unit in recent years, the March of Dimes is looking forward to “Improving Safety and Quality in the Care of Pregnant women with Substance Use Disorders.” Goodman also stated that a number of other hospitals in the area have expressed interest in the new program, but none have signed agreements to put it into practice yet. The March for Dimes is the leading non-profit organization for pregnancy and baby health. To learn more about The March for Dimes mission, please visit marchofdimes.org or nacersano.org.

Lindsay Gibbons can be contacted at lgibbons@kscequinox.com