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Associated Press
In this Friday, April 27, 2012, photo, Aileen Dannelley speaks during an interview, at the Pilsen Wellness Center where she undergoes treatment and counseling for drug abuse, in Chicago. Dannelley's one month old daughter Savannah is being treated with methadone in a hospital for withdrawal while she and her mother both fight addiction to powerful prescription painkillers.
Many women become addicted to painkillers after they’ve been prescribed them by their doctors. Others start taking painkillers recreationally, never thinking they’ll become addicts. —Catherine Olian

In addition to all the other challenges and potential hazards newborns face, a recent study found that even before they utter their first words, an increasing number of babies are already exposed to or even suffering from withdrawals relating to opiate drugs.

A study in The Journal of the American Medical Association reports tangible numbers and statistics for the first time on this issue, and the results have many experts and parents alarmed.

"The study estimated that every hour a baby is born in the United States with symptoms of withdrawal from opiates — roughly 13,500 babies a year," reports Pam Belluck in a New York Times article. "The condition, known as neonatal abstinence syndrome, can cause seizures, breathing problems, dehydration, difficulty feeding, tremors and irritability. Many infants are hospitalized for several weeks while doctors treat them with methadone or morphine to gradually wean them from their dependence on the drugs that their mothers used."

The types of drugs being used and abused are different than in years past, and therefore babies are exhibiting different symptoms and side effects than before.

"Unlike in the 1980s and 1990s, when hospitals saw a surge in babies born addicted to crack cocaine, many newborns today arrive hooked on powerful prescription painkillers, such as Vicodin and Oxycontin, Stephen Patrick, the study's lead author, says," according to a USA Today article by Liz Szabo. "The type of withdrawal Patrick studied, called neonatal abstinence syndrome, produces different symptoms from those caused by cocaine. The syndrome also can be caused by illegal opiates, such as heroin, Patrick says, but this surge in addicted babies probably is explained by the national 'epidemic' of prescription-drug abuse."

Painkillers are of particular concern because they are legal, unlike heroin or cocaine, and that makes some mothers more comfortable taking them without fully considering the consequences.

"Many women become addicted to painkillers after they’ve been prescribed them by their doctors," reports Catherine Olian in an MSNBC article. "Others start taking painkillers recreationally, never thinking they’ll become addicts."

"The prevalence of drug use among pregnant women hasn't changed since the early 2000s, but the types of drugs that women are using" are changing, says Andreea Creanga, a researcher with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA Today article. "Creanga noted that about 4.5 percent of pregnant women use illegal drugs."

The situation not only puts an additional burden on the mothers, doctors and babies, but also on the health care system as a whole.

"The sheer volume of babies born addicted is putting a strain on the health care system," according to the MSNBC article. "Healthy newborns typically stay in the hospital for a few days, but these babies stay weeks and sometimes months, at an average cost of more than $50,000 per child, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. Doctors at the Cabell Huntington Hospital in Huntington, West Virginia, told us that sometimes the neonatal unit is so full of babies going through withdrawal that newborns with other problems like prematurity have to be turned away due to lack of space."

Even though the idea of their baby suffering through opiate withdrawals is haunting for most mothers, the long-term repercussions and effects have yet to be fully determined definitively.

"It is unclear whether babies exposed to opiates in the womb will experience long-term consequences," according to The New York Times. "In the 1980s, there was alarm over whether babies born to cocaine-addicted mothers would suffer developmental problems or other damaging effects, but studies later showed that such problems were far from certain and much more likely if the child had to contend with economic hardship, family instability, poor education and other factors."

Nevertheless, mothers not wiling to take a chance and wanting to wean off their drug use must do so cautiously.

"There are no easy answers for pregnant addicts," according to the MSNBC article. "Even if they want to get off the drugs quickly, doctors advise them not to. Going cold turkey could cause them to miscarry. Instead, the women are switched from the painkillers they are on to methadone or buprenorphine, drugs that keep them stable and help curb their cravings. Unfortunately, these drugs can also cause severe withdrawal symptoms in newborns."