Treatment to prevent neonatal abstinence may be changing

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – A baby is born dependent on opiates every thirty minutes in our country. According to state statistics, in Tennessee, the rate is three times the national average.

Drug withdrawal in newborns is called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS. It happens when women take opiates during pregnancy, like Ashley Flowers, 22. She is seeking treatment at Renaissance Recovery Center to save her unborn son.

Previous story: October is Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Awareness Month

Flowers goes through an outpatient routine every weekday, getting her vitals checked by a registered nurse, then heading to a day full of group therapy with other expectant mothers in the same situation.

“This little baby, ” Flowers says, looking down at her pregnant belly, “didn’t ask to be brought into this world. And I brought this baby into the world, so it’s my responsibility to take care of him, and the only way I can do that is to get help for myself.”

Flowers says she was clean when she gave birth to her now 16-month-old daughter, Neveah, but not long after, she picked up the morphine habit that had been plaguing her for a long time.

“I’ve been struggling with addiction for about seven years, since I was 15 years old,” Flowers said. “My mother was prescribed it and I used to take them from her.”

At Renaissance, Flowers has been following what’s considered to the the “gold standard” of treatment: maintenance therapy for pregnant women on opiates. Most are given Subutex, a narcotic that manages pain and curbs cravings. The belief has been that going cold turkey from opiates during pregnancy would hurt the fetus.

Dr. Craig Towers, who treats high risk pregnant women like Flowers, has done enough research to say that’s not true.

“Detoxification during pregnancy is clearly not harmful to the fetus and is an option,” he says.

Ashley Flowers is seeking treatment at Renaissance Recovery Center
Ashley Flowers is seeking treatment at Renaissance Recovery Center.

Dr. Towers is co-author of a study published in the September issue of the American Journal of Obsetrics and Gynecology. It found that more than 600 pregnant women successfully detoxed from opiates with no harm to the fetus. That doesn’t mean women can just stop using without medical help.

“You can’t detoxify them and then let them go. They need to be maintained in some behavioral health to maintain their sobriety because our studies show if they were able to stay in some type of long term behavioral health, the risk of relapse was really small compared to if you don’t follow up with them, ” Dr. Towers says.

Maintenance therapy of stepping down gradually on Subutex is working so far for Flowers. Dr. Towers says that’s still an option, though Subutex, also a narcotic, can lead to a baby being born with NAS.

“It’s not like a panacea, ” he says, “but some research suggests it may be better than methadone as a long term maintenance medication, but it isn’t harmless.”

Dr. Towers is worried about the long term health of NAS babies. Flowers is determined to do all she can for her son.

“I have to help him through that, because I did it,” she said.

If you are pregnant and addicted to drugs, call a doctor in your area. Dr. Towers at UT Medical Center can be reached at 865-305-8888.

Renaissance Recovery is pushing for detox for pregnant women on opiates. For more information on Renaissance Recovery Center, call 865-474-1299, or visit its website at

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