Opioids are more likely to lead to neonatal abstinence syndrome, or “NAS,” than other types of medication, and the opioid crisis in this country has led to a growing number of women giving birth to children addicted to those drugs. Neonatal abstinence syndrome, a collection of medical conditions affecting a newborn baby, arises from woman’s use of drugs, including opioids, while she is pregnant.
Many mothers have given birth to children with neonatal abstinence syndrome, despite their own efforts to keep their babies safe. This is especially true for women with opioid use disorder, who have been told that quitting opioid use could actually do more harm than good to their babies, and for women who were prescribed certain types of antidepressants or sleeping pills during their pregnancy.
If you are one of these women, you have legal options available to you, including filing a claim against the pharmaceutical manufacturer, healthcare providers and any other responsible or negligent parties. If your doctor failed to recognize the signs of neonatal abstinence syndrome, you may have legal recourse.
Understanding the basics of neonatal abstinence syndrome
Neonatal abstinence syndrome is not any one disease or condition; like cerebral palsy, NAS is a collection of conditions affecting newborns who are, essentially, going through withdrawal. This is because many drugs are capable of crossing the placenta, leading to chemical dependency. If the mother is taking a prescribed medication or illegal drugs within a week or so of delivery, the child can be born dependent.
According to the March of Dimes, the signs and symptoms can show up any time between right after the birth of the baby, to a few weeks after the baby is born. They include:
- Poor feeding or refusal to latch
- Fast breathing and other signs of respiratory distress
- Difficulties sleeping
- Excessive crying
- Stuffy nose/ sneezing
- Seizures, tremors or twitching
- Tight muscle tone
The silver lining to all of this is that neonatal abstinence syndrome is a treatable set of conditions. According to the March of Dimes, most children improve in five to 30 days, though some may need to undergo treatment for up to six months, depending on the severity of their conditions and the extent of the mother’s addiction. The baby will likely be treated with medications, given a high-calorie formula and administered additional fluids.
Mothers undergoing Medication Assisted Treatment are still at-risk
Medication Assisted Treatment, or MAT, is “the use of medications in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies for the treatment of substance use disorders.” Often times, this involves prescribing medications like methadone, buprenorphine or suboxone to help wean people off of drugs like heroin.
While these medications, when taken under supervision, are safer than heroin, the fact remains that they are still opioids. A mother undergoing treatment for opioid use disorder may halt the usage of one drug, only to be prescribed another opioid. If this seems counterproductive, understand that there are additional complications associated with opioid use during pregnancy, for both mother and child – risks that some mothers (and some doctors) might feel are greater than the risk of NAS.
The risks of taking opioids while pregnant include:
- Premature birth
- Preterm labor
- Risk of miscarriage
- Stunted growth
- Placental abruption
For a mother, this is a very difficult choice. On the one hand, you don’t want your child to develop neonatal abstinence syndrome; on the other hand, you don’t want to quit “cold turkey” and potentially risk the life of your child.
When does a mother have a legal claim if her child was born with neonatal abstinence syndrome?
If you give birth to a child with neonatal abstinence syndrome, you may be able to make a claim for compensation. You could have a medical malpractice claim if:
- Your child’s condition was misdiagnosed. Some of the symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome can mimic other conditions. Therefore, it is possible that your doctor could misdiagnose the condition – especially if hospital personnel were negligent when it came to updating records, or if the electronic health records are damaged or lost. If the doctors fail to get an accurate history, they may also fail to correctly diagnose your baby.
- No one warned you about potential side effects of medication. Neonatal abstinence syndrome can be caused by taking certain types of antidepressants. If you were told that your antidepressant was safe, or if you were not warned about potential risks for birth injuries, you could have a claim for compensation.
- The medications were defective. In some cases, the medications women were prescribed may not have been classified correctly, leading mothers (and doctors) to believe they were safe. For example, the opioid Tramadol (popularly used as an antidepressant) was not reclassified by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a Schedule IV substance until 2014.
- Your child was not monitored after birth. Because neonatal abstinence syndrome can lead to other conditions like jaundice and dehydration, it is critical that the baby’s health be monitored by the doctor. Failure to do so can lead to additional problems, which can put the child’s health and life at risk.
If you were prescribed opioids while pregnant, or if you were being treated for opioid use disorder during your pregnancy, there may be legal remedies available to you if your child was born with neonatal abstinence syndrome or another type of birth defect. We can advise you of your options, and help you decide which path to take should you decide to seek compensation for your child’s injuries.
Harris Lowry Manton LLP offers comprehensive representation on behalf of injury clients throughout Georgia. To speak with an experienced medical malpractice lawyer about your case, please call us in Atlanta at 404.998.8847, in Savannah at 912.417.3774, or fill out our contact form.
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