MEDFORD — It’s a problem borne of the opioid crisis that sometimes can’t be detected until it’s too late: A woman uses opioids during pregnancy but keeps her drug abuse secret.
But within hours of giving birth, the cries of an inconsolable newborn can reveal the new mother’s painful secret.
“They’re withdrawing and behaving no different than what we would see in an adult,”said Donna Sherrill, director of Maternal Child Health at Winchester Hospital. “They’re hard to stabilize. They tend to be thrashing about and [there’s] a lot of shrieking, a lot of high screaming. We have a hard time consoling them.”
The rocky start in the nursery might only be the beginning of the hard times for infants who were exposed to substances like opioids, alcohol, or nicotine in the womb or face withdrawal symptoms after birth, experts said Thursday at the monthly meeting of the Eastern Middlesex Opioid Task Force.
The use of opioids by parents or caregivers can have devastating effects on children, who have witnessed overdoses and drug abuse, or even died from sudden infant death syndrome while the people watching them were high, Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan said.
When she began examining the issue, Ryan said, Middlesex County’s eight birthing hospitals were seeing an average of one baby born every month to a mother who abused substances during pregnancy.
“We’ve tried to take a deeper look at who else is being victimized in this epidemic,” said Ryan, who led the meeting at Lawrence Memorial Hospital of Medford. “I don’t think people have really been looking at this piece.”
The evidence of the problem is pervasive and disturbing, Ryan said.
Last week, a 5-week-old died after his father said he and the boy’s mother took a substance at a home in Marlborough. Authorities have not identified what the parents ingested or how the baby died.
Last month, police in Tewksbury caught a man and woman using heroin inside a car carrying an 8-week-old baby, authorities said. During one stretch this fall, 19 children across Middlesex County witnessed their parents or caregivers overdose, and earlier this week a 3-year-old girl saved her mother from a suspected heroin overdose by fetching a neighbor, Ryan said.
“It’s wrong on so many levels,” she said.
Since 2015, several programs have launched in Middlesex County to combat the problem, Ryan said.
One collaboration led by Ryan’s office, Hallmark Health System, and Jewish Family & Children’s Service is aimed at providing services and medical care for women with drug abuse problems or mental illness and their young children, said Sue Appleyard, a social worker involved in the project.
Another program in the Lowell area dispatches a clinician to the homes of overdose victims with children and offers mental health treatment plans to families, Ryan said. She said she also does outreach for grandparents who are raising their grandchildren because of an opioid abuse problem in the family.
At Melrose-Wakefield Hospital, a program was started last year to connect pregnant women who abuse opioids with medical care, housing resources, and early-intervention services for their children.
“If you have an opioid use disorder, it’s hard to come forward,” said Carol Plotkin, executive director of Collaborative Outreach and Adaptable Care at Hallmark Health. “Our work really is to reduce the stigma and the fear so women can go and get prenatal care, which is their best shot, of course, of having a healthy pregnancy.”
Ryan said Massachusetts will be dealing with the fallout from the opioid crisis for years to come.
“If we could shut off the opioid issue right now, we still got a generation of people beginning with these youngest kids who we’re going to be dealing with,” she said. “This is prevention at its most basic.”