A Cohort Comparison of Buprenorphine versus Methadone Treatment for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) occurs when newborns are exposed to opioids while still growing in their mother’s womb. Most of the common addictive opioids are able to cross the placenta and the baby begins to go through withdrawal when they are born and no longer receiving the drug. Symptoms of the syndrome depend on the drug the infant was exposed to. One treatment of NAS includes giving the child a similar opioid and continually decreasing the dose in order to wean the child off and help with withdrawal symptoms.

Hall and colleagues preformed a retrospective cohort study in which they looked at the treatment of newborns suffering from NAS. They looked at 6 hospitals in the southwest Ohio area from Jan. 2012 to Aug. 2014. 201 patients were treated for NAS in the study, 38 treated with buprenorphine and 163 treated with methadone. The researches found that the treatment of sublingual buprenorphine for NAS was associated with a shorter average treatment days and hospital stay. Buprenorphine treatment duration was 9.4 vs 14.0 days for treatment with methadone. Average hospital duration for buprenorphine treated infants was 16.3 days, and methadone was associated with an average stay of 20.7 days. A definite conclusion was not made that buprenorphine was the best treatment for NAS, but the study did prove that buprenorphine was superior to methadone in the treatment of NAS in newborns.

Working as an intern at a community pharmacy I see patients on buprenorphine, and other opioids every day. This article really hits home because I have seen so many mothers, with multiple children, picking up prescriptions for buprenorphine. Most have been on the prescription for a long time and don’t seem to be weaning off of it. I wonder what we as future pharmacists could do in order to try and prevent or lower the numbers of newborns experiencing NAS because of their mothers opioid addictions.

J Pediatr. 2016;170:39-44. http://www.jpeds.com/article/S0022-3476(15)01451-1/pdf.

Buprenorphine versus Methadone Treatment for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) is the heartbreaking condition in infants that results from maternal use of opioids during pregnancy. This condition is characterized by infants’ experiences of withdrawal symptoms. Illegal opioid pain relievers or heroin were used by more than 1% of pregnant women in 2011, but illicit drug use is not the only source of opioid use during pregnancy. Surprisingly, opioids were dispensed to over 14% of pregnant women between 2005 and 2011. Approximately 5.8 cases of NAS per 1000 live births occurred by 2012. As the opioid crisis continues and grows in our nation, it is becoming more important to study treatment options available for infants with NAS. The standard treatment is oral methadone and morphine. This study investigates the potential use of buprenorphine in treating NAS.

This retrospective cohort analysis performed in six hospitals in Southwest Ohio between 2012 and 2014 sought to compare the duration of opioid therapy and length of inpatient hospital stay in infants treated for NAS with the standard oral methadone treatment regimen versus sublingual buprenorphine-weaning protocol. At the six sites a total of 163 infants were treated with the standard 8-step methadone protocol, and at one site a total of 38 infants were treated with sublingual buprenorphine based on a 5-step protocol from another study. Buprenorphine dosing was weight-based and initiated at 4.4 μg/kg every 8 hours at a maximum daily dose of 39 μg/kg. Infants who had chronic intrauterine exposure to methadone were excluded from the buprenorphine treatment group and were treated with oral methadone.

The results of the study showed that patients who received buprenorphine had an average duration of treatment of 9.4 days and an average length of stay of 16.3 days while patients who received methadone had an average duration of treatment of 14 days and an average length of stay of 20.7 days. The were no adverse effects or increases in adjunct therapy with phenobarbital in the buprenorphine group compared to the methadone group. Additionally, buprenorphine may be safer than methadone because it has a ceiling effect on respiratory depression.

This study concluded that buprenorphine could be superior to methadone in the treatment of NAS in infants whose mothers did not use methadone. I found this article extremely interesting because I do not often think of the need to treat opioid dependence in infants, and it seems like much more research could be done on this topic. One of the authors of the study was a pharmacist, and I think that this area of practice has a lot of potential for pharmacist involvement. Pharmacists could play in important role in selecting treatment for NAS as well as determining drug dosing because it could be very different for this population and involves constantly changing doses in order to wean infants off of opioids.


J Pediatr. 2016; 170: 39-44.