The little baby girl with puffy round cheeks and fat little legs finally fell asleep in the mechanical swing in the boarder baby nursery at D.C. General Hospital.

The nursery has been home for the small infant since she was born two months ago. That's when her mother slipped out of the hospital and decided to let the city worry about raising her baby at $446 a day.

That day, there were seven other boarder babies in the $4-million-a-year nursery. Each belonged to a mother too addicted, poor or in trouble with the law to care for the child. The average stay is 128 days, with most boarder babies going into foster care or a group home for two years.

A federal study released this week estimated that 22,000 babies were abandoned each year in the nation's hospitals. The District had the third highest number, behind New York and Cook County (Chicago), Ill.

Each day volunteers like Bertha Brown, a 68-year-old grandmother from Southwest Washington, spend the day rocking and feeding the boarder babies at D.C. General.

"I like to give them love, which is something they don't have," said Brown, who volunteers 20 hours weekly. "They need love and cuddling, especially at this young age."

But newborns should not have to live in a hospital, insist hospital officials and others concerned with the plight of children.

More than 120 people, representing various government and community efforts, met last week to seek a better way of dealing with the problem.

During the event, sponsored by the Junior League of Washington and the Delta Research and Educational Foundation, federal and local officials said the root causes -- drugs, poverty and homelessness -- have not been addressed.

"Every month, there are 36 abandoned infants in hospitals in the city," said Melinda Baskin Hudson, president of the Junior League. The infants need permanent and safe homes, she said. "In this type of situation, we have babies unable to relate to any person," said Stanley Sinkford, head of the pediatrics department at D.C. General. "We do the best we can, but don't get the impression that we can duplicate mom."

More than three-fourths of the abandoned infants are born to drug-addicted mothers, and 85 percent of them became addicted to drugs or alcohol while in the womb.

Linda Ivey, director of community relations at D.C. General, was instrumental in opening the boarder nursery five years ago. She never forgot the day when it became clear there was a need for such a facility.

"I still can remember little Nathan sitting up there in his sailor's suit waiting to come home," said Ivey, who recalled asking the child's nurses where was the 9-month-old baby's mommy. "Nathan's mother never came."

For many mothers, finding a safe and affordable home is difficult, conference participants said. Four out of five of the 12,000 people on the waiting list for public housing are single mothers, according to city records. The average wait is five years.

Even addicted mothers can be rehabilitated if they have a permanent, secure place to live with access to social services, several participants said.

Mothers who leave their babies "are going through hell," said Angela Holland, 28, who at 15 was so drug-addicted that she put her child in foster care. "I didn't feel like a whole human, I felt like I was giving up a part of me."

Holland, who spoke at the conference, said she used drugs through all four of her pregnancies, but then got help through D.C. General's Godparent program, which provides counseling and support services for drug-addicted mothers. She said she is in recovery and now has all four of her children with her.

Until there is more coordination of services to help troubled mothers, conference participants said, hospital volunteers and social workers will have to continue to care for the babies left behind.

Ivey said: "I am angry that in five years, we have not developed a process that we can turn this situation around and wipe out this problem. There should not be one boarder baby left in this hospital."