Monday, Jul 23, 2018

Niswonger Children’s Hospital launches Families Thrive

Babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) need extra care while they’re in the hospital – and so do their families.

NAS occurs when babies are exposed to addictive substances before birth. Babies with NAS often have high-pitched cries, suffer from tremors and have difficulty eating as they go through withdrawal.

To support the parents and relatives of newborns with NAS, Niswonger Children’s Hospital has launched its innovative new Families Thrive program. Families Thrive provides counseling for addiction recovery, tools for parenting skills and connections to other services that can assist families after the baby comes home.

“The goal of Families Thrive is to provide mothers with treatment plans for narcotic recovery – if they’re not in a program already – so once their babies are discharged, they can have a healthier home environment,” said Lisa Carter, chief executive officer of Niswonger Children’s Hospital and assistant vice president of Ballad Health’s pediatric service line. “Then, as the babies grow, our hope is that families will continue to connect with ongoing medical and social support to help navigate any challenges associated with NAS.”

Families Thrive offers parents and other family members a three-pronged program that consists of a parenting day, a motivational group day and an art day. The parenting day gives participants the opportunity to receive counseling and ask questions, while the motivational group connects mothers with their peers, so they can discuss substance abuse and their goals. Then, during the art day, participants create a memento of their time in the unit, such as a collage or dreamboard.  

“The hospital stay offers a unique window of time where mothers are exceptionally focused on their babies’ needs and futures,” Carter said. “They realize they want a positive future for their child, and Families Thrive helps make that possible by working to set them up for success before they go home.”

Families Thrive also facilitates connections to resources that can help mothers and babies after their discharge from Niswonger Children’s Hospital. Carter said Families Thrive coordinators refer families to programs such as the Tennessee Early Intervention System, as well as for outpatient treatment options at local behavioral health centers and pediatricians with NAS expertise.  

“Many of the lifelong effects of NAS are still mysteries, because the opioid epidemic hit our region just a few years ago. We don’t yet know how NAS-affected children develop in the long-term, perform in school or age into adulthood,” Carter said. “But by building a network of support now, we can empower families to access programs and services that can help along the way.”

Families Thrive was made possible through a donation from Mike and Nancy Christian, who were moved to action after visiting Niswonger Children’s Hospital and meeting babies suffering with NAS. The Christians committed to a $100,000 gift, which will fund the first two years of Families Thrive.

“NAS is a heart-wrenching way to come into the world,” Mike Christian said. “When Nancy and I first toured Niswonger Children’s Hospital and saw these babies in distress, we knew we had to do something to help. Through this donation, we hope Families Thrive will keep more families together, more mothers free from addictive substances and more babies on paths to healthy lives.”

On average, NAS affects nearly 30 percent of the babies in the neonatal intensive care unit at Niswonger Children’s Hospital. To better care for them, Niswonger Children’s Hospital created a Special Care Unit, with 17 private rooms designed to fit each infant’s needs, including dimmed lights and calming music. The rooms also allow mothers to stay with their babies, so they have one-on-one time to breastfeed and bond.

The Special Care Unit is now also home to a meeting room for Families Thrive, where the structured sessions are held three times a week. Additionally, mothers and family members can visit the room at any time for additional support or respite.

All functions and services of Families Thrive are staffed by Families Free, a non-profit local organization that provides treatment, intervention services, employment through social enterprise opportunities and support for women and families affected by substance abuse, incarceration and domestic instability.

“We really believe in engaging with women, listening to their stories and adding value to their experiences as mothers,” said Lisa Tipton, the executive director of Families Free and a licensed alcohol and drug counselor. “We’re working alongside them to offer support, resources and – most of all – hope, because we know they have what it takes to be good mothers to their babies.”

Tipton also credits the open-door, elective nature of Families Thrive with helping mothers feel empowered to take initiative and explore the possibilities for recovery.

“The coordinators from Families Free have created a non-threatening, non-judgmental environment where they listen and truly care about these mothers,” Carter said. “Families have been extremely receptive to the program, and we look forward to its growth and continued success. Most of all, we look forward to a future where fewer babies suffer from NAS.”

To learn more about Families Thrive, or to support Niswonger Children’s Hospital, please visit