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How does smoking during pregnancy impact a child’s health?

May 4, 2021 • read

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How does smoking during pregnancy impact a child’s health?

Smoking is the number one cause of preventable death in the world. Everyone knows that you shouldn’t smoke, especially while pregnant. However, how exactly maternal smoking affects your unborn child isn’t always as clear. After all, babies live in your womb, not your lungs. So, what are the risks of smoking while pregnant, and are there ways of making smoking less risky? 

Risks to fetal health

The effects of smoking while pregnant are wide-ranging, and not just while your baby is in utero. Smoking can affect your pregnancy by causing premature delivery, low birth weight, and even increasing chances of a miscarriage. It can also potentially cause lifetime issues for your child as well, from birth defects like cleft palate, to ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder). Additional health repercussions from smoking while pregnant can include:

  • Sudden Unexpected Infant Death (formerly known as Sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS)
  • Abruptio placenta (when the placenta detaches from the uterus before it’s supposed to). 
  • Placenta previa (when the placenta covers the birth canal).
  • Up to 50% increased risk of stillbirth

Are there safer ways to smoke while pregnant?

Quitting smoking before pregnancy is ideal. That being said, just because you started your pregnancy as a smoker doesn’t mean it’s too late. Quitting at any time during your pregnancy decreases the risks for your baby, and cutting back helps too. Beyond these options, however, there isn’t a “safer” way to smoke during pregnancy. Mild or light cigarettes might seem like a better alternative to regular ones, but they’re not.

Vaping has also been heralded as a safer alternative to smoking, but we currently don’t have any long-term research on its effects — especially when it comes to pregnant women. For starters, electronic cigarettes contain nicotine, which is harmful to a developing fetus. Even more worrisome, several reports have found that certain e-cigarettes or their nicotine fluid contain a range of highly toxic chemicals like lead, formaldehyde, and acetone. We know that maternal exposure to these materials can increase the risk of miscarriage and cause developmental issues in the unborn child. 

Don’t start up again after the baby is born

Quitting smoking while pregnant is a huge accomplishment. But, it’s also important that you don’t start again once your baby is born. Babies who are exposed to secondhand smoke — like through a parent’s smoking — are more likely to have breathing problems, including asthma and bronchitis, as well as other health complications, like ear infections.

Smoking outside might seem like the best way to handle the secondhand smoke issue, but this still leaves your baby exposed to thirdhand smoke. Thirdhand smoke is the leftover residue from cigarettes that stays on your hands, clothing, or furniture. Cigarettes are made up of a whole slew of toxic chemicals. When these chemicals combine with particles in the air, they form new, cancer-causing particles called nitrosamines. Babies pick these up just by touching contaminated surfaces — like clothing or the floor. Even if you open a window, use a fan and only smoke when your child isn’t home, they can still be exposed to thirdhand smoke.

Should I stop breastfeeding if I can’t quit smoking?

While quitting smoking is ideal, you should still breastfeed even if you’re smoking as the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the potential risks. Instead of stopping breastfeeding, smoke outside, away from your baby. Before nursing, make sure to wash your hands and change your clothing.

Smoking and maternal health

Smoking isn’t just bad for your baby. Women who smoke increase their risk of developing a multitude of cancers, including lung and uterine cancer. Moreover, they’re at increased risk of stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and osteoporosis. On average, smokers die 10 years sooner than non-smokers. Even if you don’t plan on getting pregnant, quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for your own health.

How do I quit smoking?

New research suggests that it can take up to 30 attempts at quitting before it sticks, so don’t be discouraged if it takes you more than one try. Cigarettes are designed to be addictive, and the mental and physical effects of quitting can be uncomfortable. Even if you quit and it doesn’t last, it’s not a waste. Each time you quit, you learn about your smoking triggers, which can help you with your next attempt. You’re also giving your body and baby a break from smoking for that time.

The first step towards quitting smoking is to make a plan. Pick a quitting date and empty your house of anything smoking-related, like lighters and ashtrays. Speak to your healthcare provider about using smoking-cessation aids, like nicotine gum, safely during pregnancy. For more help on how to quit smoking, check out the Government of Canada’s guide to becoming a non-smoker. And don’t worry about the effects of nicotine withdrawal on your baby — it doesn’t hurt them.

If you’ve been smoking for a while, cigarettes are likely part of your daily routine. Getting rid of the association between smoking and certain activities can be even harder than breaking the physical addiction. As hard as quitting smoking is though, it’s worth it. Stopping smoking while you’re pregnant or before decreases many health risks for both you and your baby. And it’s never too late to quit smoking — with support, a plan, and the desire to do it, it is possible.

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