Most smokers are aware of the dangers of tobacco; however, smoking can have much more dire consequences for pregnant women. Smoking can result in negative impacts at every stage, from before pregnancy to after birth.
Before pregnancy: Exposure to tobacco smoke growing up can influence fertility later in life. Pregnancy among smokers is more difficult to achieve, regardless of which partner smokes. Smoking can hinder a woman’s ability to become pregnant through its impact on hormone production as well as by obstructing the egg’s passage to the uterus. Even in-vitro fertilization is less successful among smoking donors.
During Pregnancy: Pregnant women who smoke face increased risk of early miscarriage, while later in their terms the baby’s placenta can separate from the uterus, causing premature birth, oxygen starvation, or even death in the womb.
A fetus is totally dependent upon its mother for nourishment, as the placenta and umbilical cord are the source of nutrients and oxygen for the baby. Smoking causes oxygen in the blood to be replaced by carbon monoxide. A pregnant smoker’s blood (and therefore the blood of her child) contains less oxygen, which the fetus needs for proper development. With diminished oxygen levels, the fetus struggles for adequate oxygen, increasing its heart rate. Nicotine also narrows the blood vessels in the umbilical cord, further decreasing the fetal oxygen supply.
Secondhand smoke also affects the fetus. Toxins in tobacco smoke damage the placenta and are passed to the fetus; thus, even a nonsmoking pregnant woman should be careful to avoid exposure to tobacco smoke. According to the 2006 U.S. Surgeon General’s Report, The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Secondhand Smoke, “Babies whose mothers smoke while pregnant or who are exposed to secondhand smoke after birth have weaker lungs than unexposed babies, which increases the risk for many health problems.”
After Birth: Low birth weight (less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces) is a frequent consequence of decreased oxygen flow to the baby, leading to life-long negative health effects. A 2007 University of Michigan study determined that low-birth-weight babies are 30 percent less likely to be in excellent or even very good health in childhood, and to have developed significant health problems by the age of 37. Babies born with low birth weight have smaller organs and poorer lung function, and some studies suggest that cleft palates can be attributed to smoking during pregnancy. Another common health issue among these babies is asthma. Children whose mothers smoked throughout the pregnancy have an elevated risk of asthma in the first five years of life and suffer from asthmatic bronchitis and inflammations of the middle ear more than their normal-weight counterparts.
In addition to health problems, low-birth-weight children can experience cognitive impairments such as learning disabilities or lower IQ scores. According to a recent Georgetown University study, children exposed to prenatal and secondhand tobacco smoke are almost three times more likely to have a learning disability than children who are not exposed. They are also more likely to have social or behavioral problems such as shyness, conduct disorders, or Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Smoking mothers produce less milk, depriving their babies of the health benefits associated with breast feeding, and maternal smoking is the strongest risk factor associated with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. SIDS is the major cause of death in infants between one month and one year of age. Both babies whose mothers smoke while pregnant and babies who are exposed to secondhand smoke after birth are more likely to die from SIDS than babies who are not exposed to cigarette smoke.
Sadly, babies born to mothers who smoke are more likely to become smokers themselves in later years, perpetuating the cycle of health abuse.
For additional information on Smoking and Pregnancy, see:
Aleta Carpenter is retired Sacramento lobbyist who returned to her Shasta County roots, seeking a calmer lifestyle. She is a member of the Shasta County Tobacco Coalition and works as a Community Education Specialist II for Shasta County Public Health. She loves being in a position to give back to the community that gave so much to her in her early years.