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Dangers of Smoking During Pregnancy

Smoking during pregnancy puts both mother's and baby's life at risk. Currently, about 13 percent of pregnant women in the U.S. smoke during pregnancy. If all pregnant women stopped smoking, there would be an estimated 10 percent reduction in infant deaths in this country, according to the U.S. Public Health Service. Cigarette smoke contains more than 2,500 chemicals, with nicotine, tar, and carbon monoxide thought to be the most dangerous to the fetus.

The sooner a mother quits smoking, the better it will be for both her and her baby. If you currently smoke, it's not to late to do something about it. Quitting during the first trimester can greatly reduce the risk of having a baby with low birth weight -- almost to that of a woman who doesn't smoke. The fewer cigarettes a woman smokes, the less likely her baby will be born with smoking-related problems.

Tell your doctor if you need help quitting. If you are a heavy smoker and have not been able to quit or cut down, you may be able to use a nicotine patch to help you quit while you are still pregnant. There are risks to using the patch during pregnancy, but the risk of heavy smoking may be greater.

Even if you don't smoke, be aware that your baby can be harmed by people smoking around you. Pregnant women regularly exposed to other people's smoke during pregnancy may also be at increased risk of many of the same fetal development problems.

Smoking has been associated with a number of pregnancy complications. One is an increased risk of ectopic pregnancy. In an ectopic pregnancy, the embryo becomes implanted in a fallopian tube or other abnormal site instead of the uterus. With the rarest of exceptions, these pregnancies do not result in the birth of a baby, and must be removed surgically or with drug treatment to protect a woman's life.

Cigarette smoking also appears to double a woman's risk of developing placental complications (which occur in about 1 percent of pregnancies). These include placenta previa, a condition in which the placenta is attached too low in the uterus and covers part or all of the cervix; and placental abruption, in which the placenta separates from the uterine wall before delivery. Both can result in a delivery that jeopardizes the life of mother and baby.

Smoking during pregnancy also increases the risk of stillbirth, miscarriage, and severe vaginal bleeding.

Smoking during pregnancy, which can seriously slow fetal growth, nearly doubles a woman's risk of having a baby with low birth weight. In 1998, 12 percent of babies born to smokers in the U.S. were of low birth weight, compared to 7.2 percent of babies of nonsmokers.

Studies by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also suggest that smoking increases the risk of preterm delivery (before 37 weeks of gestation) by about 30 percent. It also increases the likelihood of certain birth defects, including a cleft lip and/or cleft palate (an opening in the roof of the mouth or the soft tissue in the back of the mouth).

Babies who weigh less than 5-1/2 pounds at birth face an increased risk of serious health problems during the newborn period, chronic disabilities (such as cerebral palsy, mental retardation, and learning problems), and even death.

Babies of mothers who smoke are twice as likely to die from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) as babies of nonsmokers. Children who are exposed to cigarette smoke before birth also may be at increased risk of lasting problems, including asthma, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems.

It's also important to stay smoke-free after you bring your baby home. Both mother and father should refrain from smoking in the house, and insist that visitors to do the same.

Babies who are exposed to cigarette smoke after birth face an increased risk of SIDS. They also suffer from more respiratory illnesses, ear infections, and tonsillitis than other babies. According to the AAP, an estimated 1.67 million physician visits each year in the United States are to treat coughing due to involuntary smoking. Infants whose mothers smoke are 38 percent more likely to be hospitalized for pneumonia during their first year of life than babies of nonsmoking mothers.

Smoking in the home during the first few years of a child's life also increases his risk of developing asthma. Continual smoking can lead to more frequent and severe asthma attacks in children who already have the disease.

Nursing mothers who smoke more than 20 cigarettes a day will likely pass along harmful chemicals from cigarettes to their babies in breast milk. Heavy smoking can reduce a mother's milk supply, and on rare occasions has caused symptoms in the breastfeeding baby such as nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea.

Sources: March of Dimes; American Academy of Pediatrics; American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; U.S. Public Health Service; La Leche League

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice from your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your health or the health of others.