Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) is a serious condition in newborns experiencing withdrawal from substance exposure in pregnancy. Symptoms affect an infant’s central nervous system and metabolic, vasomotor, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems, and this condition could lead to seizures or death if left untreated. The rate of newborns diagnosed with NAS is on the rise, with approximately one infant born every hour in the US demonstrating signs of withdrawal.
Research and practice in the field of NAS has focused on the vulnerable infant in a medical model that addressed symptomatology, toxicology screening, pharmacological treatment, and length of hospital stay. Little is known about the contextual factors in the lives of affected infants despite the fact that infants will be eventually discharged from the hospital to the family home or into the child welfare system. More importantly, the experiences of mothers of infants with NAS is absent in the literature. A more comprehensive understanding of mothers’ experiences is needed to expand the understanding and treatment of NAS in a larger social context.
Newborns are completely reliant on a caregiver to meet their basic needs. Therefore, to diagnose and treat an infant without an understanding of the maternal experience may serve to fragment the mother-infant relationship. The purpose of this research is to explore and describe the lived experiences of mothers of newborns with NAS. This understanding may influence the development of a more comprehensive treatment of NAS that extends beyond the incubator.
To accomplish this inquiry, I used descriptive phenomenology and conducted face-to face interviews with eight mothers of infants with NAS. Data was collected in Thunder Bay, Ontario between August 2011 and December 2011. Following the interviews, I used Colaizzi’s model of thematic analysis that aims to describe the experiences that were common across participants. Analysis revealed nine themes: 1) trauma, abandonment and loss; 2) the cyclical nature of depression; 3) the trajectory of drug use; 4) becoming a mother: pregnancy; 5) self-sacrifice: the paradox of methadone maintenance; 6) being a mother: experiences with the newborn; 7) ambiguous motherhood; 8) against the odds: resilience and overcoming obstacles; and 9) the meaning of motherhood. Each of the themes contributed to uncovering the transformative nature of motherhood. This transformation is the essence of participant’s experiences with NAS. Prior to this dissertation, there was a lack of scholarship exploring the experiences of mothers of infants with NAS. These findings influence a more holistic appreciation of NAS that extends beyond the newborn and is inclusive of the mother. Understanding the experiences of mothers may reduce stigma, encourage early and comprehensive intervention for mother and newborn, and lead to a greater understanding of the challenges and unique needs of mothers.