Music therapy weaning babies off opioid addiction at Kosair Children's Hospital

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- We've seen the effects of opioid addiction on our communities: homelessness, hopelessness and even death.

But a local hospital is devoting their time to the most vulnerable victims, desperately working to help them break the habit.

One of those victims is Jackson, a 8-pound, 4-ounce baby born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, a condition that occurs when babies are exposed to drugs in the womb.

While technically he's not an addict, he is going through withdrawal.

"I was on heroin," said Brittany, Jackson's mother. "Been struggling with that since I was 18. I'm 28 now."

Brittany didn't want to show her face, but says when she learned she was pregnant, she checked herself into a drug treatment program where doctors put her on methadone to help her kick the habit.

But just like any other opioid, it caused little Jackson to go into withdrawal.

Dr. Dawn Forbes, a neonatologist at Norton Women's & Kosair Children's Hospital, said babies with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome are irritable, have trouble sleeping and have trouble feeding. She says that while opioids eventually clear a baby's system naturally, it's often not before leading to more serious problems like seizures and difficulty breathing.

"We worry that these kids may have more difficulty meeting their developmental milestones, that they may have some learning delays or disabilities that they may have discoordination like hand-eye," Dr. Forbes said.

The Neonatal Intensive Care team weans babies with NAS off the drugs using a multi-layered approach including drug interventions like morphine and more recently ... musical therapy.

The NICU adapted the program for babies with NAS two years ago after seeing a significant spike in the number of patients. 

Before 2011, the NICU treated about 30 infants with NAS a year. But since then, that number has more than doubled ... jumping between 70 to 100 from year to year.

"I use music and live-singing, patting and rocking to match the baby's behavior state," said Michael Detmer, a NICU music therapist.

Detmer says it's very complex, using a series of rhythmic techniques to calm the baby.

"If they're extremely agitated ... I'm going to be singing faster with a stronger pat and rock, and I slowly reduce the intensity of those stimuli," he said. "So my singing becomes more soothing and a slower tempo, the patting becomes a little lighter."

Ultimately, they're training the child to sooth itself. Even their pacifier is part of therapy.

They use a special pressurized pacifier that plays music. The caregiver gradually adjusts the pressure level, forcing the infant to suck. The more and harder the baby does, the longer the music plays.

"If you can improve their feed, improve their sleeping, decrease their crying and make them more calm, then you've just eliminated three of the major symptoms that lead babies to have to need medication or hospital stay," Dr. Forbes said.

"I didn't know how much of a help how it can help a baby soothe themselves," Brittany said.

"It's given me peace of mind and hope."

Babies with NAS are usually weaned off the drugs within two to four  weeks. Jackson will have to wait 48 hours after he's off the medication to see if he has any more signs of withdrawal before he's released.

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