Published: Nov 24, 2011 12:37 AM EST
Updated: Nov 24, 2011 12:45 AM EST

FLORIDA - Addicted at birth. Each year, hundreds of babies in Florida enter the world struggling to breathe, eat or sleep, products of their mothers' own drug addictions. And now, instead of heroine or cocaine, these babies are starting their lives hooked on prescription pain killers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls prescription drug abuse "the nation's fastest-growing drug problem." As a result, doctors are seeing a new generation of babies born addicted to those drugs, sometimes called "Oxytots."

Roxys, Cocaine and Xanax: three words that once ruled Jill McWaters' life.

"I went on a hard run since last Christmas to April of this year," McWaters said.

Jill's addiction was a runaway train. There were few things strong enough stop it. Except this: "I found out i was pregnant," McWaters said."I said then and there, I'm stopping. I've got to stop. I need help. I managed to stop the Roxys, and admitted myself into a methadone outpatient clinic, so three months total, I was using during my pregnancy."

Those on the outside looking in might say, why not just quit? It's not as simple for mothers-to-be. Doctors say an abrupt stop puts unborn baby's life at risk. Instead, the addiction must be managed throughout pregnancy. At the Susan B. Anthony Center in Pembroke Pines, Florida - where Jill spent the last 7 months - they treat mothers struggling with substance abuse.

"We allow the women to get in, they get to keep their children with them, and they are able to get all the treatment services they and all their children need," Susan B. Anthony Center CEO and Founder Marsha Currant.

Since opening in 1995, Currant has witnessed a rise in mothers hooked on prescription drugs. She says more than 35% of the women entering the center are addicted to the painkillers.

"The prescription drugs are even harder because you are physically addicted," Currant said.

But for those mothers who don't get help, their babies, tiny, innocent victims, who never popped a single pill, enter the world in a fight for survival.

"Every baby that is born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome  suffers, and it's clear when you watch them that they're struggling," Lee Memorial Neonatal Physician Dr. William Liu said.

According to Liu, the withdrawal symptoms can begin right at birth, or may not show until weeks later.

"They may become extremely irritable, inconsolable, have difficulty with feeding, sweat, vomiting, loose stools, changes in their color, they may have respiratory instability," Liu said.

The average stay of a healthy newborn is about 2 to 3 days. For a baby suffering from withdrawal, it's more like 3 to 4 weeks. Instead of milk, these babies get morphine to ease their pain, slowly weaning them from the drug, allowing them to eat and sleep like a newborn should.

"They clearly have higher risk for neural developmental problems, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, behavior issues," Liu said. "The physicians, the nursing staff, the social service people, we all know that this impacts not just on us, but the family and ultimately, on society."

In 2006, 354 newborns were treated in Florida hospitals for drug withdrawal. Last year, that number rose to 1,374. That's a 288% increase over 5 years.

The cases locally continue multiplying as well. Charlotte County's newborn withdrawal cases jumped from 1 in 2006 to 29 in 2010. Collier County's cases rose from 12 to 29. And Lee County went from 14 to 73, ranking 5th in the state.
    
There have been few long-term studies on how prenatal drug exposure will affect children later in life. Doctors and nurses within Lee Memorial Health System are now trained to interview expectant mothers, looking for signs of opioid use.

"Many women, when they come in, are not aware of that risk," Liu said. "They communicate to us that they did not really know that that behavior would result in a baby who might have a risk for drug dependency."

Last month Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi urged lawmakers to pass a bill to form a Statewide Task Force on Prescription Drug Abuse and Newborns. The team would analyze the problem, the costs associated with treating addicted babies and the long-term health effects.

"We are identifying prevention, and intervention strategies for expectant mothers which include education and awareness," Bondi said.

"We owe the children of Florida a fair start at the starting line of life, and I think that is what this is all about," Sen. Joe Negron said.

What a difference a year makes. Jill McWaters has been clean for 8 months, has a job she loves, and a healthy 2-month-old son., who she credits with giving her her life back.  For Jill, motherhood is a high drugs can't match.

"I look at that child, and I see, if I mess up, that's what I'm losing," McWaters said. "And I don't want to lose him."

The rising numbers of newborns experiencing drug withdrawal in some counties may be attributed to a higher incidence, while in others, it's the result of increased education. If the bill proposed by Attorney General Pam Bondi becomes a law, the task force will report its findings to the Legislature in January 2013.

To learn more about the Susan B. Anthony Center, go to http://susanbanthonycenter.org/