Objective The neonatal abstinence scoring system proposed by Finnegan is used widely in neonatal units to initiate and to guide therapy in babies of opiate-dependent mothers. The purpose of this study was to assess the variability of the scores in newborns and infants not exposed to opiates during the first 3 days of life and during 3 consecutive days in weeks 5 or 6.
Patients and methods Healthy neonates born after 34 completed weeks of gestation, whose parents denied opiate consumption and gave informed consent, were included in this observational study. Infants with signs or symptoms of disease or with feeding problems were excluded. A modified scoring system was used every 8 hours during 72 hours by trained nurses; 102 neonates were observed for the first 3 days of life and 26 neonates in weeks 5–6. A meconium sample and a urine sample at weeks 5–6 were stored from all infants to be analysed for drugs when the baby scored high. Given a non-Gaussian distribution the scores were represented as percentiles.
Results During the first 3 days of life median scores remained stable at 2 but the variability increased, with the 95th percentile rising from 5.5 on day 1 to 7 on day 2. At weeks 5–6 median values were higher during daytime (50th percentile = 5, 95th percentile = 8) than night-time (50th percentile = 2, 95th percentile = 6, P = 0.02).
Conclusion Scores increase from days 1–3 to weeks 5–6 and show day–night cycles with 5–6 weeks. Values above 8 can be considered pathological. This data may help to raise suspicion of narcotic withdrawal and to guide therapy.