At first glance, this baby born at Fletcher Allen Health Care looks like a typical, healthy newborn. But a closer look reveals tremors, a telltale sign of neonatal abstinence syndrome, a common condition for babies born to opiate-dependent moms. Moms like "Jill," who asked we not use her real name.
"I got pregnant for all the wrong reasons," she said. "I was very strung out on heroin and I had no intention of stopping or even slowing down."
Jill was 19, pregnant and using 30 bags of heroin a day. She got herself into treatment, but detox sent her into early labor.
"I had my son three months early," Jill said. "He had to fight through the withdrawals in the NICU."
Jill's story is not unique. In 2012 nearly 6 percent of babies-- 136 of them-- born at Fletcher Allen were exposed to opioids during pregnancy; 20 percent of the infants required treatment for withdrawal.
"Usually these women are full of shame. They're ashamed that they're drug addicts. Then they're ashamed that they're pregnant and they can't stop using," said Dr. Anne Johnston, a neonatologist at Fletcher Allen.
Johnston treats more than 100 babies a year for opiate dependency, but says the numbers are likely higher, explaining some women try to hide their addictions.
"We see all kinds of women in different states of recovery and some are really not there at all and are in full denial," Johnston said.
She says some moms simply can't parent, but it's rare. More than 80 percent of her patients retain custody of their babies.
"I think we've seen more hope in this population than I ever imagined," Johnston said.
For Jill, the road to recovery is still a work in progress, paved with relapses and heartbreaking setbacks. She's lost custody of all four of her children.
"It's something I don't ever want to go through again... I felt worthless. And embarrassed. But I had to use it as motivation to get better," Jill said. "I mean, I love my children with all my heart and it wasn't enough to quit."
In Vermont there's a shortage of treatment options. Currently 640 opiate addicts who want help can't get it. But pregnant moms move to the head of the waiting list.
Reporter Jennifer Reading: Do you find that women are getting pregnant to get treatment?
Dr. Anne Johnston: I don't think I can answer that yes or no... I would think it would be understandable that you would do anything to get treatment. Now as bad as that seems, I think that you might get pregnant to get treatment. You have a disease. There is a relief. You want to be clean.
At 31, Jill is now working to stay clean. She's on daily methadone and hopes to one day beat her addiction and finally have a family.
"I have hope for myself," she said. "I know I can be successful because I want it bad enough today and I feel that I would be an excellent mother, if I was sober."
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