The Power of Gentle Touch: Volunteers Hold Newborn Babies Experiencing Drug Withdrawal

by Kristen Burke

At Mercy Health’s Special Care Nursery in Muskegon, the Gentle Touch for Newborn Support volunteer program is providing necessary comfort and care to babies experiencing Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). The volunteers in this program are on-call to visit and hold these babies, giving them the personal contact they need to recover.

“Our hospital has experienced an increase of drug withdraw babies over the past few years,” said Debra Perry-Philo, MSN, RNC, director of OB, Pediatrics and Med Surg. Perry-Philo created the program in September 2017 to address this increasing occurrence. “One action that helps these babies is gentle touch by a caring individual.”

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

According to the March of Dimes, NAS is a group of conditions that affect babies who were exposed to certain drugs- most commonly opioids– in the womb. These drugs may be illegal, such as heroin, but even pregnant women given prescription opioids by their physician can unintentionally pass the drug through the placenta and to their unborn babies, causing harm after birth.

Once born, these babies suffer withdrawal symptoms, which usually are noticeable within three days of birth and can include:

  • Tremors, seizures, twitching
  • Fussiness, excessive crying
  • Breathing problems
  • Fever
  • Diarrhea, throwing up
  • Stuffy nose and sneezing.

Traci Wilks, a Hackley Nursery nurse experienced in caring for with special need babies, says that if treated immediately, most newborns will recover within two to eight weeks.

This is where the volunteers enter the picture.

Volunteer Sharon White holding a baby in the Special Care Nursery at the Mercy Health Birth Center in Muskegon.

The Power of Gentle Touch

“For these babies, it’s better to be held than left in their cribs,” said Wilks. “The Gentle Touch volunteers are a huge help to NAS babies when their parents can’t be there to hold them, and to the nurses when we are busy with clinical needs of our patients.”

The volunteer group includes retired and current Mercy Health colleagues like Sharon White, who worked in the Surgery department at Mercy Health until about 13 years ago.

“We have received specialized training to hold these babies, as you can’t overstimulate them, because they are very sensitive to stimuli,” said White. “You can’t bounce or jostle them. Part of the volunteer experience is so rewarding, but it’s so heartbreaking to see the effects of drugs on these babies. You just can’t understand how wide-reaching the drug epidemic is until you see these little babies.”

Perry-Philo says most NAS babies are treated with medication in addition to the comfort they receive at Mercy Health Hackley Campus, a specialized blend created by pharmacists trained for these little patients.

The Opioid Crisis

A White House report officially labeled the opioid crisis a public health emergency in _____. The report states that “In 2014, the number of babies born drug-dependent had increased by 500 percent since 2000, and children being placed in foster care due in part to parental drug abuse is going up — now it is almost a third of all child removals.”

According to the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services, (MDHHS), the total number of deaths from overdose of any type of opioid has increased more than 17 times in Michigan, from 99 to 1,689. In 2015, there were a reported 11.4 million prescriptions for painkillers, meaning about 115 opioid prescriptions per 100 people.

Read about how Mercy Health Saint Mary’s created an interdisciplinary team to address the rising issue of opiate-dependent births in 2016.

The Gentle Touch volunteer group is not currently in need of volunteers, but visit the Mercy Health Volunteer webpage to learn how you can contribute your time and talents for the benefit of Mercy Health patients in Muskegon and Grand Rapids.