Phenobarbital and Clonidine as Secondary Medications for Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal Syndrome

Pediatrics. 2021 Mar;147(3):e2020017830. doi: 10.1542/peds.2020-017830.


Background and objectives: Despite the neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS) epidemic in the United States, evidence is limited for pharmacologic management when first-line opioid medications fail to control symptoms. The objective with this study was to evaluate outcomes of infants receiving secondary therapy with phenobarbital compared with clonidine, in combination with morphine, for the treatment of NOWS.

Methods: We performed a retrospective cohort study of infants with NOWS from 30 hospitals. The primary outcome measures were the length of hospital stay, duration of opioid treatment, and peak morphine dose. Outcomes were compared by group by using analysis of variance and multivariable linear regression controlling for relevant confounders.

Results: Of 563 infants with NOWS treated with morphine, 32% (n = 180) also received a secondary medication. Seventy-two received phenobarbital and 108 received clonidine. After adjustment for covariates, length of hospital stay was 10 days shorter, and, in some models, duration of morphine treatment was 7.5 days shorter in infants receiving phenobarbital compared with those receiving clonidine, with no difference in peak morphine dose. Infants were more likely to be discharged from the hospital on phenobarbital than clonidine (78% vs 29%, P < .0001).

Conclusions: Among infants with NOWS receiving morphine and secondary therapy, those treated with phenobarbital had shorter length of hospital stay and shorter morphine treatment duration than clonidine-treated infants but were discharged from the hospital more often on secondary medication. Further investigation is warranted to determine if the benefits of shorter hospital stay and shorter duration of morphine therapy justify the possible neurodevelopmental consequences of phenobarbital use in infants with NOWS.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics / therapeutic use*
  • Analgesics, Opioid / administration & dosage
  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use
  • Clonidine / therapeutic use*
  • Drug Administration Schedule
  • Drug Therapy, Combination / methods
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Length of Stay / statistics & numerical data*
  • Linear Models
  • Male
  • Morphine / administration & dosage
  • Morphine / therapeutic use*
  • Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome / drug therapy*
  • Phenobarbital / therapeutic use*
  • Retrospective Studies


  • Analgesics
  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Morphine
  • Clonidine
  • Phenobarbital