The number of babies born addicted to narcotics in the United States has quadrupled in the last decade, new figures have revealed.
The rise is being blamed on a growing epidemic of painkiller and heroin use currently gripping America.
Every half an hour a baby is born in the US craving the drug its mother was addicted to, according to a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
These children are born with crippling withdrawal symptoms because they have become dependent on drugs like heroin and methadone while in the womb.
Dr Paul Winchester, medical director at the St Francis Hospital Midwest state of Indiana specialising in babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome said”The cry is a very distressed one, a very high-pitched one and no effort to console seems to help the baby.
“It’s tragic – here we have a mother that’s a drug addict. It sounds bad and so I think we struggle against a natural impulse to characterise the mother as bad and the baby as a victim.”
The problem is so bad in Indiana that some mothers arrive at the hospital high on drugs.
Dr Veronica Guilfoy, assistant director of the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) said: “We have had cases where the mother admits that she just shot up heroin in the parking lot before delivering the baby.
“The babies, generally within 12-24 hours, display significant withdrawal from those narcotics – crying, vomiting.
“It’s a very painful, agitating process for them and the reality is that we have to give them that narcotic back and slowly wean them off.”
In 2001, a single baby was admitted to the NICU compared to 48 in 2014 – the equivalent of nearly one a week, according to hospital officials. The result of this is a ward full of mothers wracked with guilt.
Jessica Barnes was addicted to painkillers for years and when she found out she was pregnant switched to a methadone replacement programme to withdraw from the drug.
But this meant her unborn child became dependent on the drug.
When Elijah was born he suffered immediate withdrawals.
She said: “It’s terrifying. You don’t know what could happen. Things could go from good to bad in the blink of an eye.
“You don’t ever want your kid to go through that. But I’m glad he’s getting the help that he needs.
“The guilt is always going to be there and it’s something you kind of have to forgive yourself for.
“You can’t feel guilt for the rest of your life.”
Trials on animals have revealed the damage done to a foetus in the womb as a result of drug dependency could have a lasting effect on a child during their life.
But worse than that, it could change, or imprint, on the DNA of a baby.
Dr Winchester said: “These imprints can become heritable, can be passed down from one generation to the next.
“We had no idea that this was possible but now we do.
“What we don’t know is specifically whether opiates and exposures that babies are undergoing are causing this.”