Dr. Emily Hall is the first full-time pediatrician in five years at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Polson. Hall arrived at St. Joseph with health care experience and training in competitive diving from around the world.

POLSON — According to data collected at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Polson, 27 percent of all newborn babies delivered there in the first half of 2016 tested positive for drugs, and 29 percent of those tested positive for multiple substances.

Babies who are exposed to drugs and become dependent before birth to the drugs their mothers have taken during pregnancy are diagnosed with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. They experience withdrawal upon birth, including symptoms like irritability, difficulty sleeping, seizures, jaundice and an increased breathing rate.

They often have to spend more time in the hospital, possibly in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The babies have to be weaned off medications and the length of stay depends on the severity of the withdrawal symptoms.

Now, the Montana Healthcare Foundation has awarded a $42,600 grant to support the “Bridge to Hope” project at the hospital to support mothers with newborns experiencing NAS on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Dr. Emily Hall, a pediatrician at the hospital, leads a program to positively “impact and enhance” mother-infant bonding for babies with NAS. The project is designed to reduce the time that mothers and babies are separated, and will engage mothers in the care of their infants through an ongoing series of 10 maternal support group sessions while their newborns are hospitalized.

A licensed addiction counselor, in partnership with a pediatrician and nursing staff, will conduct the sessions. The mothers will receive educational materials and training related to the care of their infants, and aimed at facilitating bonding with the infants.

“Mothers sometimes experience the hospital environment as stressful,” Hall said. “The concerns of a mother who is using substances are sometimes intensified, fearing exposure as a ‘bad’ parent and fearing losing her baby to the child welfare system. These fears may result in mothers distancing themselves from their infants. Research has demonstrated that for babies born with prenatal opioid exposure, more time with parents next to them eased withdrawal symptoms and shortened hospital stays.”

Hall's training is in providing medical care in rural and low-resource communities.

The “Bridge to Hope” project is intended to increase an addicted mother's voluntary participation in area drug treatment programs by the time the infant is discharged.

Hall believes the project can significantly influence the health and well-being of families on the Flathead Reservation.

“The value and impact that the project can have on infants experiencing NAS is clear and profound,” she said. “Studies have reported the positive impact of supportive assistance for mother-infant bonding, leading to lifelong patterns of children forming trusting, healthy relationships with their families and others.”

In 2011, only half of Native American mothers in Montana received prenatal care during the first trimester, compared to three-quarters of white women, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Of the seven reservations in the state, only three have health centers that provide prenatal care. On the others, women are sent to the nearest hospitals outside reservation borders, which are on average more than an hour away.

The Missoulian recently completed an investigative series in partnership with the University of Montana School of Journalism that looked at issues surrounding drug use and pregnancy. The entire series is available online at http://missoulian.com/news/state-and-regional/addicted-and-expecting-how-montana-s-lack-of-resources-impacts/collection_c253fefe-f18e-58f9-bbd3-113afc8b7278.html.

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A portion of Missoulian reporter Lucy Tompkins' previous work on the topic was included in this article.

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