Huntington, West Virginia (CNN)7-week-old Oliveah just started daycare, and when she cries, her teachers ask all the usual questions: Is she hungry? Does she need a diaper change? Is she coming off of opioids?
That last question might sound unusual, but this new child care center in Huntington, West Virginia, is unusual: It serves only babies and toddlers who were exposed to drugs in the womb.
It’s believed to be the first of its kind in the country — and there’s a waiting list to get in.
That’s because at Cabell Huntington Hospital, the largest hospital in the city, 1 out of 5 babies is born to a mother who used opioids while pregnant.
The babies go through treatment for drug withdrawal before they’re discharged from the hospital, but that doesn’t mean the problems end there.
The babies at the child care center range in age from 6 weeks to 2 years, and sometimes cry for hours on end. Teachers struggle to calm them down.
“They’re just inconsolable,” said Suzi Brodof, executive director of the center. “It’s not just crying. It’s a high-pitched wailing.”
“It’s exceptionally difficult to hear them cry,” added Janie Fuller-Phelps, the director of the center. “There are times you just feel helpless, hopeless.”
It gets worse: The babies sometimes have twitching and tremors — even seizures.
When the center opened in June, staffers from the hospital visited to share what works best for babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). These babies are super sensitive, they advised. Keep the lights dim. No bright colors on the walls. Where other babies and toddlers might love stimulation — loud singing or noisy toys — these babies need the opposite.
“These children just have different needs than other children,” Brodof said.
That’s why some babies with NAS get kicked out of other child care centers.
“Yes, they actually get kicked out. It happens frequently,” said Lisa Ertl, interim director of the division of early care and education at the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. “The typical caregiver doesn’t know how to handle them.”
The center in Huntington, run by River Valley Child Development Services, is funded by the state and currently has eight children. There’s space for eight more, but not enough money to pay for staffing.
Six of the children at the center were exposed to opioids while in the womb and two were exposed to methamphetamines, according to umbilical cord testing. They were all exposed to other drugs as well.
Even after just a few weeks, the teachers can see changes in the children. Huck, a 4-month-oldbaby boy, has fewer crying spells, and now smiles and giggles at his teachers.
But like many babies exposed to drugs, his muscles are tense, and his teachers massage him and straighten his arms and legs.