One in 500 babies now born drug dependent

Newborns with withdrawal symptoms up by 67% in 10 years as money for specialist rehab units runs out

The number of babies born suffering from drug withdrawal symptoms has increased by 67 per cent in the past 10 years, according to new figures obtained by The Independent on Sunday.

In 2007-08, 1,230 babies in England suffered from symptoms including poor sleep, agitation and difficulty feeding because of serious drug use by their mothers during pregnancy.

According to the British Association of Perinatal Medicine, one in 500 newborn babies need treatment with small doses of morphine to control these symptoms.

But research by the IoS has found the number of babies affected is much higher than official figures suggest.

Last year, a total of 350 babies were born to addicted mothers in Manchester, Fife and Bradford alone. The majority recovered naturally without being prescribed medication.

Physical withdrawals occur only if the mother uses either opiates such as heroin and methadone or sedatives such as diazepam during pregnancy. So newborns who experience problems from exposure to cocaine, amphetamines and cannabis may be excluded from these statistics.

According to experts, the increase in withdrawing babies reflects the number of women abusing drugs and alcohol as well as a 60 per cent increase in the number of women seen by drug services that prescribe methadone – the legal alternative to heroin.

These findings come just weeks after Edinburgh City Council took the unprecedented step of appealing for new foster carers after the number of babies born to addicted mothers doubled between 2007 and 2008.

Professor David Field, president of the British Association of Perinatal Medicine, said: "In the mid-1990s, you rarely saw these babies but now there is always one on the ward who is withdrawing, and the numbers will grow as the rates of addiction continue to grow. Most women we see tend to be on heroin or methadone or both, but the risks to the baby from cocaine are a different kettle of fish because it can stop blood from getting to the developing organs. However, research into links between drug use in pregnancy, birth defects and developmental problems suggests it is the overall affects of a chaotic lifestyle, poor diet, smoking and alcohol which cause the damage, rather than just the drugs."

There are 40 drug and alcohol specialist midwives in the UK who work closely with social workers and addiction services, but access to this joined-up care is patchy. The Government insists that pregnant addicts receive much better care as a result of new practice guidance and investment in maternity service.

Joyce Leggate, a drug liaison midwife in Fife, Scotland, has seen her case load quadruple since they set up the service 12 years ago. She said: "While there has been a significant rise in the number of pregnant women who misuse drugs and alcohol, the number of babies who need treatment with morphine has remained fairly static because we encourage our mothers to breastfeed which provides a natural detox for the baby as they wean. The main goal for us is stabilising mum's drug use, because withdrawing from multiple drugs is the most dangerous thing for babies."

The charity Action on Addiction last month opened a 23-bed rehab centre for women in response to the growing need. Half of their current clients are mothers; none has custody of their children. Guilt, shame and abuse are dominant themes in recovery.

But Bethany Lodge, the specialist mother-and-baby rehab unit, is one of 19 centres to close in the past two years and addicts find it difficult to convince health authorities to pay thousands of pounds for residential rehab. Andrew Lansley, the shadow Health Secretary, said: "This further highlights the importance that we ensure that those who are habitual and dependent drug users are directed to effective drug rehabilitation schemes which bring them off drugs completely so that we can also protect unborn children."

Ms Leggate added: "All of our women want to do the best for their babies but there is a limited amount we can do to help them in a few months when 80 per cent were themselves abused as children. But if you really want to mess up a baby long term, then drinking alcohol in pregnancy will cause lifelong damage."

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