THE number of babies born to illicit drug users across the Lower Hunter is on the rise with staff at John Hunter Children's Hospital treating more than 50 "addicted" babies a year.
New figures reveal 238 babies were born addicted to substances including heroin, cannabis, amphetamines and opiates over the past 3? years.
A total of 1025 babies were admitted to the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit in 2009 and of those 58 suffered drug withdrawals.
That figure has now risen with 614 babies admitted in the first six months of this year, 43 of them to illicit drug users.
The hospital's neonatologist Dr Javeed Travadi said there was a notable increase of drug- affected babies and if it continued to rise, more strain would be placed on the hospital's specialised staff.
Babies born to illicit drug users begin to show signs of withdrawal about 24 hours after delivery.
They can suffer a range of withdrawal symptoms including screaming, sweating, a fast heartbeat, vomiting, difficulty breathing, jittery behaviour and in extreme cases seizures.
Dr Travadi said most of the babies treated in the Hunter, many transferred to John Hunter Children's Hospital from other centres like Maitland, had been exposed to opiates including heroin.
"But there are a whole range of other drugs such as cannabis and methadone they are also exposed to," he said.
Most of the mothers were encouraged to breastfeed so their babies could be slowly weaned off the drugs they had passed on to their child.
Dr Travadi explained that if the child was bottle fed it would be similar to an addict going "cold turkey".
He said most babies were treated with morphine to settle them, then slowly weaned off it.
Drug, Alcohol, Research and Training Australia director, Paul Dillon, said a survey released this month by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare revealed that illicit drug use was fairly steady, however cocaine abuse had risen.
"Speak to any treatment centre workers and they will tell you that alcohol remains the biggest problem but in terms of other drugs the problem with heroin continues," Mr Dillon said.
Mr Dillon said women who used drugs through their pregnancy and gave birth to babies with those problems were the "hard end of the market".
"They are usually injecting drug users who have a range of other social problems as well," he said.
"This is an area that can't be ignored. We are dealing with two lives, not just one.
"The workers in the treatment centres also need support and resources. We can always do more."
John Hunter Children's Hospital has put in place specialist staff like Dr Travadi as well as treatment and support programs to help the mothers and their babies.
"Mothers with a drug or alcohol-related issue in the antenatal period are cared for by obstetric, midwifery, paediatric and drug and alcohol staff and community services," Dr Travadi said.
He said antenatal mothers were counselled and reviewed on a regular basis and once babies were born with issues relating to substance abuse, they were reviewed by paediatric staff who continued to manage the baby and mother together, at all times preventing where possible separation of mother and baby.
Dr Travadi said it was hard to determine what the long term impacts would be.