Tobacco smoke contains thousands of chemicals, most of which are harmful, such as carbon monoxide, ammonia and hydrogen cyanide. And many of the chemicals have been proven to cause cancer. Unfortunately, even nonsmokers can be affected by these harmful chemicals. One such innocent victim can be an unborn baby.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, about 1 in 14 pregnant women who gave birth in the United States in 2016 smoked cigarettes during pregnancy. Smoking has the potential to harm nearly every organ and system in the body and can diminish a person’s overall health. A pregnant smoker is putting not only her health but also that of her unborn baby at risk.
It is well-known that smoking can cause respiratory and lung disease as well as increase one’s risk of having heart disease or stroke and even developing cancer, but how does smoking during pregnancy affect the unborn baby?
The nicotine and carbon monoxide in tobacco smoke work together to reduce your baby’s supply of oxygen and nutrients. Nicotine can narrow the blood vessels, including the ones in the umbilical cord, and restrict the blood flow. The carbon monoxide replaces oxygen in the baby’s bloodstream, thus reducing the amount of oxygen they receive. This, along with the restriction of nutrients crossing the placenta, slows the baby’s growth and development. These factors can increase the chance of having a placental abruption, premature delivery, a low birth weight, an underdeveloped body and possible malformations.
According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, women who smoke during pregnancy may be putting their newborns at risk for congenital heart defects.
Other developmental factors that have been reported include an increased chance of having a baby born with a cleft lip or cleft palate as well as having underdeveloped lungs.
Once the baby is born, the risk of harm does not stop. Children whose mothers smoked during pregnancy are found to be more vulnerable to infection or asthma and have double, or even triple, the risk of sudden infant death syndrome. If the child is then further exposed to secondhand smoke, these risks can then be exacerbated. This continued exposure can cause an increased frequency of ear infections, colds, pneumonia and bronchitis. It can also cause more frequent and severe symptoms in children who have asthma. Secondhand smoke exposure can also slow the growth of children’s lungs and can cause them to cough, wheeze and have feelings of breathlessness.
Another type of smoke that is typically not considered is referred to as third-hand smoke. It is what’s left behind when someone smokes. It’s what you smell on things like clothes, furniture, carpet, walls, skin and hair that have been in or around smoke. This smoke can stick to and build up on things over time. Babies and children can be exposed to the harmful chemicals found in third-hand smoke when they breathe it in or when they touch or put things in their mouth that have been exposed to the smoke.
It’s best to quit smoking before you become pregnant, but the sooner you quit smoking during pregnancy, the healthier you and your baby can be. You can make a big difference in your health and your baby’s, so be sure to ask your health care provider about tools to help you quit. Your family, friends and loved ones can also provide support to you.
Other outside resources to quit smoking include smokefree.gov, which can provide access to free information. There are also helpful smartphone apps, text message programs and even personal quitting plans. The toll-free 1-800-QUIT-NOW hotline can also connect you directly to your state quit line and can put you in touch with trained coaches. You will feel good about what you have done for yourself and your baby.