METAIRIE, LA (WGNO) -- Enter the neonatal intensive care unit at Tulane-Lakeside Hospital for Women and Children outside New Orleans and you'll hear the heartbreaking sound of addiction.
The NICU is home to the tiniest, most fragile patients in the hospital. These days, more and more of them are hooked on opioids like heroin, fentanyl, oxycontin or percocet before they ever leave the womb.
Registered nurse Deborah Neff knows the symptoms all too well. "Usually it's a lot of agitation, high-pitched crying, unconsolable."
These addicted infants require round the clock care and heavy medication like morphine for weeks, even months at a time. Heff says, what used to be a relatively rare occurrence has now turned into a crisis. It takes a heavy emotional toll.
"It's very hard to see that those innocent children are going through such horrible pain."
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, from 2000 to 2012, the number of neonatal abstinence syndrome or NAS babies in the U.S. increased five-fold. The institute reports a baby is born with opiate withdrawal every 25 minutes.
Experts say, if you are pregnant and using, seek help immediately. The sooner a mother-to-be can start treatment, the better outcome her child will have. However, pregnant women should understand that the drugs used to treat opioid addiction will affect the baby as well.
NICUs across the nation are now looking beyond traditional medicine to address the problem. Despite advances in medical care and technology, doctors and nurses say, never underestimate the power of human touch.
Tulane-Lakeside is among a growing number of hospitals across the country using that human touch to heal. Volunteers with the hospital's "Cuddler Program," like Leah Grau, spend their free time soothing these needy babies.
It's as simple as, "touching, stroking, just a face for a baby to look at," explains Grau.
The hospital currently has three volunteer cuddlers, but is looking to expand its program. Those who are interested can click here to begin the process.
As these tiny patients fight the battle of their lives, born into a world of beeps, cries and suffering, a volunteer's soothing voice or a simple song offers the much sweeter sound of hope.