How Smoking Affects Pregnancy And Your Baby

By:    Published: November 23, 2011

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Many people know about the negative health effects associated with smoking. Unfortunately, a lot of women have tried to quit and have been unsuccessful. Smoking during pregnancy has a tremendous impact on the health of both the mother and the developing baby. Although some women are able to quit cold turkey once they learn they are expecting, others will continue to struggle with the addictive properties of nicotine. Taking the time to learn just how dangerous smoking can be and the negative effect it can have on both the mother and the baby is sometimes all that is needed to help kick the smoking habit altogether.

Why is it Dangerous?

Everyone knows that smoking is bad for your health. Nicotine is an addictive chemical that cause a plethora of health conditions. While most expectant mothers would never eat a muffin that was labeled “cancer-causing muffin”, many women continue to pick up a cigarette and smoke during their pregnancy, despite warnings about the dangers associated with smoking. But many people are often surprised when they learn that cigarette smoke contains over 4,000 chemicals. Of those, at least 60 have been identified as cancer-causing carcinogens. In addition to cancerous compounds, cigarette smoke contains chemicals such as lead, carbon monoxide and cyanide.

Both nicotine and carbon monoxide are dangerous on their own. But when these two compounds are combined, as they are in cigarettes, they are even more dangerous. These two toxic compounds are the leading cause of smoking-related complications during pregnancy. The nicotine narrows the blood vessels in the mother’s body and the umbilical cord, which restricts the amount of oxygen that gets transported to the baby. Instead of being surrounded by oxygen to breathe, the baby struggles to bring in enough. Compounding the problem, tiny particles of carbon monoxide are picked up by the red blood cells that are responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the body. For every bit of carbon monoxide that is picked up by the red blood cells, an equal amount of oxygen is left behind. This further decreases the amount of oxygen being delivered to the baby. The increase in blood volume during pregnancy combined with pregnancy hormones and a growing fetus pushing on the lungs makes breathing difficult during pregnancy. Smoking perpetuates the problem, decreasing the amount of oxygen available to both the mother and the baby.

How Can it Affect the Pregnancy?

Women who smoke while they are pregnant increase their risk for pregnancy-related complications. Pregnancy places a tremendous burden on a woman’s body. From the fluctuating hormones to the effects of weight gain, even the healthiest woman can develop complications during her pregnancy. Those that smoke are at a greater risk.

Smoking during pregnancy can cause a placental abruption. This occurs when the placenta, the baby’s lifeline during the pregnancy, separates from the uterine wall prior to delivery. The placenta will separate naturally during the labor and delivery process, but when it happens prematurely, the results can be disastrous. When placental separation occurs, it is a life-threatening emergency for both mother and baby.

Not necessarily life-threatening, but still very serious, Placenta Previa is another condition that occurs more frequently in women who smoke during pregnancy. The placenta normally attaches to the side of the uterine wall early in pregnancy. With Placenta Previa, the placenta instead attaches low in the uterus, either partially or completely covering the opening of the uterus. If the opening of the uterus is blocked by the placenta when it is time to deliver the baby, a cesarean section will have to be performed.

Smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of having an ectopic pregnancy. When this occurs, the embryo does not implant in the uterus. Instead, it implants somewhere else, such as the fallopian tubes. When this occurs, the pregnancy must be terminated, as it cannot grow and thrive anywhere other than the uterus. If left untreated, ectopic pregnancy can be life-threatening.

Women who smoke during pregnancy are more likely to experience unexplained vaginal bleeding, and premature delivery. Smoking during pregnancy more than doubles the risk of having a stillbirth.

How Can it Harm the Baby?

Women who smoke during pregnancy are exposing their unborn baby to a myriad of potential health problems both during the pregnancy and after birth. One of the most serious complications is premature delivery. A normal pregnancy lasts for 40 weeks. A baby is considered premature if he is delivered any time before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Women who smoke during pregnancy are up to 4 times more likely to have a baby born before 37 weeks than women who do not smoke. Premature babies are susceptible to a host of health conditions, including difficulty breathing, inability to regulate body temperature and low birth weight.

Babies who are born full term are still at increased risk of having a low birth weight if their mothers smoked during pregnancy, even if they were not delivered prematurely. Premature babies and those that are born with a low birth weight have a much higher chance of developing serious medical conditions, including permanent disabilities, mental retardation, behavioral problems, developmental disabilities and even death.  Babies who are smaller at birth generally have smaller lungs and therefore babies. When this occurs, baby’s first days will likely be spent in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) hooked up to breathing tubes or a respirator rather than in his mother’s arms. Even after transitioning out of the NICU, these babies will remain at increased risk for developing asthma and other breathing difficulties later in life.

Babies of mothers who smoked during pregnancy are at increased risk for being born with birth defects such as a cleft palate or cleft lip.

Smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of giving birth to a baby with a heart defect. These babies are up to 70% more likely to have heart defects than babies who were not exposed to smoke while in the womb.

Babies who are born to mothers who smoked during pregnancy are up to 3 times more likely to die from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

What About Second Hand Smoke?

Almost equally dangerous to babies is second-hand smoke. Second-hand smoke is the smoke that is burned at the tip of the cigarette and exhaled by the smoker. This type of smoke contains even more toxic chemicals than the smoke that is inhaled by the smoker. Babies who are exposed to second-hand smoke on a regular basis are much more likely to suffer from allergies, asthma, cancer and other health conditions. These babies have triple the risk of dying from SIDS than babies who are not exposed to second-hand smoke.

How Can I Quit?

There is no right or wrong way to quit smoking. What works for one individual might not work for another. Start by removing the temptation. Remove all of your ashtrays, lighters and matches from your home. Explain to any guests that smoking is off limits in your home. Ask your friends who smoke not to do so in your presence. Avoid places where smokers congregate such as bars and restaurants with smoking sections.

Avoid caffeine and choose non-caffeinated beverages instead. Caffeine can trigger your desire to smoke.  Many people find that eating or sucking can mimic the motion of smoking. Try snacking on fresh fruits and vegetables of sucking on mints or lollipops when you feel the urge to smoke. Chewing gum can also help.

Enlist help from others. Ask your partner, a friend or a co-worker to quit with you. You can help support each other and offer encouragement along the way. Inquire about local support group groups in your area. Speak with your doctor about using smoking cessation aids that are safe during pregnancy.

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