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Opioid epidemic spreading to newborns

PUEBLO, Colo. -- The opioid epidemic isn't just affecting adults across the country, it's also impacting babies.

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the number of babies dependent on opioids nearly doubled from 2010 to 2015.

Parkview Medical Center in Pueblo is one of many hospitals across Colorado seeing a big spike in babies dependent on drugs.

The hospital treated 32 infants in 2015 and saw 37 babies exposed to opiates in 2016. That's up from just one or two a year before 2011.

Most of the drug-dependent babies the hospital sees are addicted to heroin. Nationwide, the number of newborns addicted to opioids is up 400 percent since 2000.

Brenda Shriver is part of the treatment these babies receive. She's one of a team of volunteers that visit the hospital every week to hold drug dependent infants.

"It's hard not to kiss them," she said. "I don't dwell on their problems. I'm aware of it, but I don't dwell on it. It doesn't do any good."

Health officials say cuddling helps the babies through some of the most difficult days as newborns.

"With cuddling you get control of some of those minor symptoms of withdrawal and it's actually seen as our first line of medical treatment," said Camille Hodapp, a nurse practitioner at Parkview Medical Center.

"Sometimes they shake. They don't eat right. Sometimes their reflux isn't there. Some times it's really, really hard, so it just varies from baby to baby."

Doctors say withdrawal can last hours, days or months. They describe it as intense physical pain just like a drug user would experience when deciding to quite.

"The only difference with infants is they can't tell you they're going through withdrawal other than their physical symptoms. They can't look at you and say I don't feel well, my stomach hurts," Camille Hodapp said.

That's why a little tender, love and care can go a long way.

"I tell them they're important, that they have a purpose," Shriver said. "I just love what it does for both of us, the baby and for me."

The hardest part is saying goodbye. The long-term effects of drug exposure in utero are largely unknown.

"I think it varies so much from baby to baby," said Hodapp.

Despite the best efforts of social workers and doctors, many mothers will go back to using.

"I hold out hope things will be great and they're going home to a place that will nurture and support them in a place that will be healthy," Shriver said.

All volunteers like Shriver can do is hold the babies while they can, a dose of much needed medicine only  human arms can provide.