Inside an Arizona nursery caring for drug-dependent babies

Tara Sundem, executive director of Hushabye Nursery, sits inside a nursery room where drug-dependent babies undergo detox in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S. March 9, 2023. REUTERS/Liliana Salgado

By Liliana Salgado

A nursery in Phoenix, Arizona, is treating some of the most vulnerable victims of the long-running U.S. opioid crisis: newborn babies.

The facility treats babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a condition similar to withdrawal that develops when babies essentially become addicted to drugs their mothers use during pregnancy. Babies with NAS can tremble uncontrollably, clenching their muscles and gasping for breath.

“When you see a baby withdraw you never, ever, ever forget it,” Tara Sundem, the executive director of Hushabye Nursery, told Reuters.

Newborns with NAS tend to crave the darkness and calm of the womb, so at Hushabye the rooms are kept intentionally dark, sheltered from bright light and commotion.

hushabye nursery
A nurse rocks a drug-dependent baby to sleep inside a nursery caring for infants experiencing withdrawal symptoms from drugs their mothers consumed during pregnancy, in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S. March 9, 2023. REUTERS/Liliana Salgado

The nursery consists of 12 private rooms with a bed for parents to sleep in as the child undergoes the detox process and a special bassinet that helps calm them. While at a hospital it is not unusual for babies with NAS to stay 21 days, at Hushabye eight days is the usual. The detox nursery can treat the entire family under one roof and with one-on-one support from caregivers.

“If I didn’t meet Hushabye I would have had no clue what NAS was,” said Clarissa Collins, who went through the program with her newborn baby daughter. “What to look for, how to care for my baby, I had no knowledge.” Collins now helps others facing the same battle and works as a peer support specialist at the clinic.

According to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of babies born with NAS increased 82% nationally from 2010 to 2017. In 2020, around six newborns were diagnosed with NAS for every 1,000 hospital stays.

Opioid-related deaths among Americans soared during the pandemic, including from the powerful synthetic painkiller fentanyl, exacerbating an already tragic and costly nationwide crisis.

Overdoses involving synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, killed more than 70,000 people in the U.S. in 2021, according to the CDC.


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