NAS Prevention: Baby Demonstrations

As we move into the summer, we will be highlighting some of the direct Community Impact work that the United Way of Southern West Virginia leads in our community. One of our least well-known programs is our Baby Demonstrator program, presented by our Executive Director Michelle Rotellini.

In Southern West Virginia, there is no doubt that we have a substance use crisis permeating our communities and affecting our workforce, our economy, and our children. One particularly shocking way that the opioid crisis affects children is when children are exposed to drugs or alcohol in utero. This causes a myriad of conditions immediately following birth, with effects rippling well into late childhood, adolescence and beyond. This issue hits incredibly close to home. In 2014, physicians at Raleigh General Hospital in Beckley were reporting that nearly one in three to four babies were born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, the official terminology for babies born going through withdrawal (WVVA, 2017). In addition to NAS, many babies are born in our community with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), or are victims of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS).

Our Baby Demonstration program aims to educate the public, particularly students, on these crises and the lifelong effects of substance abuse while pregnant. We travel to schools across our 7 county region, presenting to health classes, Child Development Programs, college-level courses and more. The United Way of Southern West Virginia has 3 anatomical babies, each displaying physical characteristics of one of the following syndromes: Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, or Shaken Baby Syndrome. We provide a brief presentation on each of the babies, discuss physical characteristics of each, and provide information on how all three of these tragic fates are 100% preventable.

The NAS baby has a function that allows the audience to see the violent shaking that a newborn going through withdrawal would experience. The FAS baby displays the characteristic traits of a child exposed to alcohol while developing: wide set eyes, small head circumference, ear abnormalities and more. The Shaken Baby model is equipped with accelerometers that measure the force exerted on the brain when the doll is shaken. The baby’s see-through head reveals LED lights that indicate damaged parts of the brain in real time. The baby’s cries abruptly stop as audience members shake the baby and see how such seemingly little force is enough to cause permanent brain damage and even death.

This community education program aims to bring awareness to the problem of pre-natal exposure to drugs and alcohol, and address the United Way of Southern West Virginia’s goal of reducing the risk of community health crisis caused by substance use disorder. It also addresses the United Way’s goal of breaking down barriers to learning to give every child an equal chance in the classroom and in life.

If your school or organization is interested in scheduling a Baby Demonstration Presentation, please contact Michelle Rotellini at 304-253-2111, or We are happy to edit the presentation to meet the interests and needs of your students or organization.