Five per cent of babies in Prince George Regional Hospital are exposed to drugs in the womb, and many are born addicted and suffer withdrawal symptoms.
"We see it all the time," said Dr. Marie Hay, vice-president of medical staff. "We see it so regularly that we recognize the signs of drug-addiction withdrawal."
The problem is also acute in the Lower Mainland, with one Vancouver facility treating more than 100 addicted pregnant women a year.
Doctors must give morphine to some babies born to heroin addicts to ease the infants' withdrawals, Hay said.
"You can't let them go cold turkey," she said. "It's just too cruel."
Without morphine, heroin-addicted babies become extremely distressed and frantic during withdrawal, suffering from diarrhea, vomiting, sweating, tremulousness, rapid heart rate, fast breathing and high-pitched crying, she said.
The dose is slowly reduced to wean the child off the drug.
For kids born addicted to cocaine or crystal methamphetamine, doctors may prescribe valium.
The hospital's five-per-cent figure doesn't distinguish between babies exposed to drugs in the womb and those addicted through that exposure.
Drug exposure in the womb can lead to attention-deficit disorder, learning disabilities and behaviour problems, Hay said.
And the exposure puts a child at higher risk of addiction in future.
"Their brain has been wired and altered by their experience in the womb," she said.
Hospital staff alert provincial child-welfare authorities when a drug-exposed baby is born, but the infants are rarely taken away from their mothers, Hay said.
In Vancouver, the Fir Square program at Women's Hospital assists 100 to 125 addicted pregnant women per year.
Neither the Health Ministry nor the Ministry for Children and Family Development keeps province-wide statistics on drug-exposed babies.
Medical staff at the Prince George hospital identified 43 drug-addicted babies in 2007, a tenfold increase in 10 years, said Hay, who believes the real number is higher. If doctors and nurses suspect drug exposure, they can only test the baby with the mother's permission, or if it has been apprehended by child-welfare authorities.
Crack cocaine is the most common drug afflicting Prince George newborns, but the mothers are often using a mix of drugs, and frequently refuse to reveal what they're taking or how much, Hay said.
A harm-reduction approach in Vancouver has improved outcomes for babies and mothers, according to a research paper by Dr. Ron Abrahams, medical director of perinatal addictions at B.C. Women's Hospital.
Support systems offered at the Sheway Maternity Clinic in the Downtown Eastside have reduced mothers' substance use and increased the number of babies who are not apprehended by authorities but instead go home with their mothers, Abrahams reported.
At Women's Hospital, the Fir Square unit provides 12 beds for addicted pregnant women, who receive support in battling drugs, in maintaining a healthy pregnancy, and in parenting.