A new study by Australian researchers has found that far more babies are now being born with serious drug withdrawal symptoms.
The researchers at the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research in Perth say the number is now more than 40 times higher than it was in the 1980's and the babies are at greater risk of neglect and of being taken into care.
An analysis of data has revealed that of 637,195 live births in Western Australia between 1980 and 2005, 906 were diagnosed with Neonatal Withdrawal Syndrome and every year, there was an average 16.4% increase in children born with the syndrome.
Professor Fiona Stanley, co-author of the study says the research has identified a range of factors that should help in the early identification of children at risk.
Professor Stanley says it is clear that there is a need to start working with the mothers before these babies are born - ideally, pre-conception - in order to reduce the number of these children suffering from abuse and neglect.
The researchers say the majority of the mothers had already had contact with hospitals for mental health and substance use issues, which suggests there could have been numerous opportunities to intervene to prevent unplanned pregnancy and provide intensive support with antenatal care and substance abuse treatment.
Professor Stanley suggests that a multidisciplinary team that includes obstetricians, social workers, drug and alcohol workers, and welfare workers is required to case manage and support these women through the complex issues that they are facing.
Professor Stanley says the 'Women and Newborn Drug and Alcohol' service provides a good example of a working model but it is imperative that this support continues long term.
According to Professor Stanley the increase in babies suffering Neonatal Withdrawal Syndrome reflects the overall rise in substance abuse within the community as well as the increased recognition of the syndrome by health professionals.
Professor Stanley believes the WA study reflects a national trend and says the situation is now such that 4 babies out of every 1000 births are born suffering the effects of illicit drugs which equates to over 1000 newborns per year in Australia.
Professor Stanley says this has serious implications for the child, the family and the whole community and is an issue that must be tackled well before the children suffer potential harm.
The study was made possible by a groundbreaking agreement by the Western Australian Government Departments of Health and Child Protection that allowed health and welfare records to be linked and the de-identified information given to researchers for analysis.
The research was supported by an Australian Research Council Linkage Project Grant.