An average of 68 babies a year – more than one a week – are born with symptoms of drug withdrawal at South Australian hospitals, prompting calls to better support addicted mothers.
Figures show nursing and midwifery staff in public and private hospitals raised the alarm about 72 cases in the past financial year, up from 56 in 2018-19.
Welfare workers and drug and alcohol services warn health messages about the dangers of substance abuse during pregnancy are not getting through and numbers could rise as a result of increased dependence during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Advocates are calling for more in-home support for pregnant women with a history of drug misuse and public health campaigns showing the “horrific” impact on babies.
Infants going through withdrawal are more irritable, cry more, have difficulty sleeping or feeding and can have a fever or low weight. Treatment ranges from comforting through swaddling, skin contact and frequent feeds to administering morphine or sedatives.
“If a person was to see a baby withdraw, it’s horrific,” Riley Foundation social worker Nadia Bergineti said. “But often these parents don’t see that if the baby is removed from their care at birth.”
A Child Protection Department spokesman said newborns showing signs of drug dependence were not always taken into state care.
Instead, a “holistic assessment of the family’s capacity to keep their children safe is undertaken” and parents might be asked to undergo drug tests or be referred to drug-treatment programs. SA Health figures show 755 babies have been born showing signs of drug withdrawal since mid-2009.
SA Network of Drug and Alcohol Services executive director Michael White said it was “likely” numbers could rise because some families relied more heavily on alcohol and drugs to deal with isolation or unemployment during the pandemic. He said there had been significant funding to address mental health but little for drug and alcohol treatment.
Mothers needed “intensive services which go into the home and assist them to go through detox and withdrawal prior to birth”.
Ms Bergineti said targeted public health messaging would help because many of the parents she worked with with had lower levels of education and underestimated the harms of drug abuse. “Some feel that they’re managing, that they only take drugs when the children are asleep … they get their kids to school,” she said.
Health workers receive training on identifying withdrawal in infants and are required to report cases to the Child Abuse Report Line.
Notifications can be made about unborn children from 20 weeks’ gestation.
SA Health could not say which drugs have been identified but confirmed they could include prescription painkillers.
The Advertiser has previously revealed the most common results of parent drug tests by child protection authorities are for cannabis and methamphetamines.
Mr White said people would likely “assume that it’s meth or heroin when it’s far more likely to be a much broader range of other drugs”.
He added that “the majority of harm” to unborn babies was caused by alcohol.
Opposition child protection spokeswoman Katrine Hildyard said while the removal of a newborn was “sometimes absolutely necessary, it is important there is appropriate support for new mothers, including access to treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues”.