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Cigarettes Harm Your Baby for Life

By Ashlyn Lehr, RN

Cigarettes Harm Your Baby for Life

Did you know that smoking affects your developing baby long after she’s born? In fact, it can affect her health well into adulthood.

While fewer women than before are now smoking in pregnancy, the American Lung Association (ALA) says 10% of pregnant women still smoke. And that means the baby is also receiving nicotine with each cigarette.

It may surprise you to learn that if you smoke, your baby will go through nicotine withdrawal after she’s born. She will be fussy because she’s uncomfortable, in pain and she well may display tremors and muscle rigidity.

When this happens, your nurses will encourage you to swaddle your baby for comfort, and nurse her as often as possible to slow the weaning process as nicotine passes through to your breastmilk.

If you smoke, you may even go through this withdrawal yourself postpartum, particularly if you’ve had a cesarean and can’t be up and around. Many hospitals are smoke-free and there may be no place in the facility for you to smoke.

Risking your baby’s health

Smoking is associated with babies being born too small, premature or even dying in the womb, say experts at the ALA. This is important because babies who are born small for their gestational age are at a significantly increased risk for multiple medical problems as a newborn, child and even into adulthood, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart defects and disease, say experts at the March of Dimes. Smoking even causes metabolic changes related to how a baby uses insulin in utero that have been linked to metabolic syndrome later in life.

Cigarettes and their smoke contain thousands of chemicals, including nicotine, lead, cyanide and more than 50 cancer-causing compounds. Smoking during pregnancy dramatically affects your baby’s lungs, primarily because nicotine and carbon monoxide basically work together to choke your baby’s oxygen, putting her at a four-fold risk of respiratory illnesses and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) post-birth. Also, healthcare experts agree that smoking also puts your baby at greater risk for developing asthma.

But most of all, if you smoke in pregnancy, you’re impacting your developing baby’s brain. Babies born to mothers who smoke have smaller overall brains and fewer cells in the cerebral cortex, the main part of the brain, which experts say is a sign of brain death during development.

Risking baby’s life quality

Many smokers are under the false impression that as long as they stop after the baby is born, the effects on their baby will go away. But research has shown that the damage does not end once the baby is born. Sadly, the changes to brain cells in utero and just after birth that are crucial for later development and cognitive ability have already occurred.

Smoking causes altered brain plasticity and reduces the number of dividing brain cells. This leads to learning disabilities and behavior deficits later in life. As described in Science Daily, “Smoking affects eventual programming of synaptic competency.” Experts at the March of Dimes agree that not only is your child more likely to have a lower brain weight, but she is also at greater risk for future learning disabilities and serious health problems, such as cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities because of the lack of oxygen in utero.

Additionally, research has shown that if you smoke while pregnant, your baby is more likely to struggle with depression later in life because of changes in the 5 HT receptors that are altered in utero.

Other studies have shown that babies born to smokers are more likely to pick up the habit and have a more difficult time quitting because of the neurological changes that took place in the womb. The CDC found that of the 3,000 new young people who become smokers each day, many are teens who were predisposed to smoking and had no idea that their mother’s choices and habits started them down a possible lifelong struggle with nicotine addiction.

Strategies to Quit Smoking

  • Practice saying “no thank you; I don’t smoke” until it’s a habit.
  • Set a realistic quit date—give yourself at least 1 month to wean yourself from nicotine.
  • Slowly decrease smoking over this time period.
  • Join a support group—online and in person; there are so many free resources to help you quit.
  • See your healthcare provider or go to a smoking cessation specialist.
  • Try nicotine replacement via inhaler, patch, gum, lozenge or medication to help you quit slowly and effectively.
  • Find success by using medications and counseling together—this dramatically increases your chances for success.
  • Journal your journey and daily reflect on your reasons for quitting.
  • Keep your hands busy with a hobby or sports.
  • Reduce stress via meditation, yoga, deep breathing or listening to relaxing music.
  • Delay the first cigarette of each day, and the “next” one—each day you smoke less cigarettes is an accomplishment.
  • Tell everyone you’re quitting and ask for their help.
  • Reward yourself for your hard work.
  • Recognize the difference between “relapsing” versus “slipping” up—revisit your goals and get right back on track.
  • Once you quit, stay smoke-free by reminding yourself of your goals in quitting; then continue to practice healthy living.

Ashlyn Lehr, RN, is a community health and triage nurse in Portland.

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