Opioid-dependent babies: How an Ontario hospital is helping newborns cope

As the opioid epidemic mushrooms across Canadian communities, a growing number of babies are being born dependent on painkillers. But one Ontario hospital has found a way to reduce the effects.

Belleville, Ont., hospital is trying new approach

A couple of years ago, doctors put Belleville, Ont. resident Brenda Banks on a methadone regimen during her pregnancy that would help reduce her cravings for painkillers while avoiding dangerous withdrawal symptoms for her newborn son, Amias, who is now a year old. (CBC)

The day Brenda Banks found out she was pregnant with her third child was the day she decided to get clean.

The Belleville, Ont., resident had started taking percocets after her first two sons were born. She says she took the pills "to feel better," but eventually, she felt sick without them.

It was while seeking help at a local addiction clinic two years ago that she found out that she was pregnant. Doctors put her on a methadone regimen that would help reduce her cravings for painkillers, while avoiding dangerous withdrawal symptoms that could harm the baby.

"I was scared at first," says Banks, now 28, and holding the hand of her blond, red-cheeked baby son, Amias Calladine.

She says that throughout the pregnancy, she "was always expecting the worst."

But with the help of a new program at Belleville General Hospital, Banks's son had a relatively normal birth.

"When he was born, he had all his fingers, [all] his toes, and he was happy and smiling and he sucked right away," she says. "So it was really perfect."

'We've had a complete 180-degree turn'

A recent report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information and the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse found 13 Canadians are hospitalized each day for opioid poisoning. That number has gone up 30 per cent since 2007.

As this latest drug epidemic mushrooms across Canadian communities, a growing number of babies are being born dependent on opioids.

Like many health centres, Belleville General Hospital has been seeing more babies born from opioid-dependent mothers. The way they treat them, however, is different. (CBC)

Cut off from their mother's supply of the drugs, these newborns can experience withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, jitters and upset stomachs. Many of them need to detox upon delivery.

The hospital where Banks's son was born is hoping to make his relatively good experience the norm.

Like many health centres, Belleville General Hospital has been seeing more babies born to opioid-dependent mothers.

The way they treat them, however, is different.

Amias Calladine was among the first newborns to go through the hospital's "rooming-in" program, which has helped drastically reduce the need for intense medical care in these cases.

"We've had a complete 180-degree turn," says Shelley Kay, manager of the Maternal Child Program.

New approach

Before the program started in 2015, babies born to drug-dependent mothers would be sent to the intensive care unit, where they would be treated for signs of withdrawal. Discharged from hospital, their mothers would returning only for visits until the baby could be cleared of any harmful symptoms.

But last year, hospital staff decided to allow these mothers to stay in private rooms with their newborns and help care for them while they're being monitored at the hospital.

This room at Belleville General Hospital is used as part of the facility's initiative to help babies born to opioid-dependent mothers. (CBC)

Where 80 per cent of the babies born to opioid-dependent mothers once showed symptoms of withdrawal and required treatment with morphine, the hospital says just 20 per cent need to be treated with drugs now.

Many of the positive changes can be linked to increased mother and baby contact, through simple acts such as breastfeeding and skin-to-skin touch. The environment of a private room also allows these newborns to begin their lives in a quiet, dimly lit space quite different from the intensive care unit.

"For those moms, we've now created that opportunity for bonding, and for them to take care of their baby — not for us to take care of their baby first," says Kay.

Program cost nothing to implement

As one of the first mothers in the program, Banks says those early hours with her son meant a lot.

"We had the bonding time, we had the skin-to-skin. I was still able to breastfeed him. So that was really great," she says.

As for the cost of the program, Kay says, it didn't take much. The hospital's unique position in a small city allowed it to partner with community groups that already existed to help women battling addiction.

Working with those partners, the hospital was able to add donated fridges to some of the private rooms in order to allow mothers to store their own food.

A regional health program known as Thrive also helps provide tablet computers for mothers to borrow during their stay.

"There was no new medication to add, no new technology," Kay says. And where many of these newborns used to be hospitalized for multiple weeks, she says, this new care program has seen many of them go home "two to three weeks ahead of schedule."

In other words, the program is potentially saving the hospital money.

A health centre in nearby Kingston has a similar rooming-in arrangement, and Kay says the program is attracting interest from other hospitals in the province looking for best practices.

As Banks moves forward with her methadone therapy, she has also been spreading the word at addiction centres, trying to inform any potential future patients about the service.

"If you're pregnant and you don't know what to do or where to turn, there are options," she says.


Sarah Bridge is a CBC journalist based in Toronto. She has worked as a producer, writer and reporter at CBC bureaus across Canada since 2008.