Smoking during pregnancy – do cigarettes harm your baby?

Did you know that some obstetricians consider smoking to be the leading cause of negative outcomes for babies? Here’s why – and how you can quit. By Lisa Witepski

Smoking during pregnancy

Here’s a sobering thought: every puff of cigarette smoke that you inhale contains thousands of toxins – which enter your bloodstream and go straight into your baby’s body. Obviously, all of these have the potential to cause harm, but the two substances your gynae is really worried about are nicotine and carbon monoxide. Why? Because they cut off the amount of oxygen available in your body, and this can cause massive damage to your baby’s development.

Here’s how smoking during pregnancy can affect your baby:

  • Weight: A low birth weight is one of the most common effects of smoking during pregnancy. Why is it so bad? Because small babies tend to be more vulnerable to illness and other health issues, which may continue long past infancy into childhood.
  • Lungs: It stands to reason that this organ is the most heavily affected. Children of smokers tend to be susceptible to respiratory issues like asthma, as their lungs may be underdeveloped.
  • Heart: Because the flow of oxygen to the brain is interrupted, your child may be born with a congenital heart defect. In fact, Johannesburg-based gynae Dr Bronwyn Moore says that new research suggests that smoking within the three months prior to conception can affect the baby’s cardiovascular health right up until his forties.
  • Brain: Smoking during pregnancy may affect your child’s IQ, and lead to learning and behavioural problems in later life.
  • Risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS): Children of smokers have a higher risk of SIDS.
  • Risk of stillbirth. This can be higher in smokers.

How to quit

You probably don’t need any more reasons to quit – so how to do it? Giving up smoking is hard enough at the best of times, when you’re not battling with nausea or the myriad other stresses, aches and pains that pregnancy can bring.

Unfortunately, your gynae is most likely to suggest you go cold turkey. Although you may have heard that stopping suddenly might be more dangerous for your baby than quitting slowly, the truth is that even one or two cigarettes a day can play havoc with your child’s development. It’s also been shown that cutting down isn’t effective, because smokers tend to puff harder on cigarettes when they know they’re going to be smoking less – and, of course, the harder the draw, the more chemicals enter your bloodstream.

Nicotine replacements may be an option, but before you go this route, it’s essential you ask your gynae for advice. The main problem is that you’re still exposing your baby to nicotine, even if it is at a much lower dose than in a cigarette. However, it’s certainly a better option than smoking. It’s probably safest to use gum, lozenges or inhalers than a patch – again, ask your gynae for a recommendation.

Vapes have become an increasingly popular alternative to cigarettes, but remember that the jury is still out on the safety of these electronic cigarettes. They can contain nicotine – albeit in small amounts – and the chemicals present in the smoke may also prove harmful to your baby.

If you’re serious about quitting, it might be a good idea to get professional help. Often, there are emotional and psychological issues connected with that cigarette craving – maybe you use smoking to help you deal with anxiety, for example, or perhaps certain habits, like mealtimes, bring on the craving. A counsellor might be able to help you find alternative ways to deal with these situations.


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