There are an estimated 128,845,000 babies born each year at a rate of 350,000 per day, with the global population expected to reach 9.8 billion by the year 2050.
And while thankfully medicine has come a long way since the days when forceps were considered the apex of obstetric technology, sorting through the cacophony of information on potential pregnancy health mishaps can be bewildering. RingMD’s series on pregnancy health aims to straighten out misconceptions and address your pressing concerns so that you can focus on what’s most important--taking care of yourself and preparing for the birth of your baby.
First, the bottom line:
If your eyes travel no further downward than the very first paragraph of this article, then let the one thing you take away be this: If you are pregnant or attempting to become pregnant, quit smoking as soon as possible.
The contents of a mother’s bloodstream--whether it be stress hormones, heroin, nicotine, carcinogens, or alcohol--have profound and long-lasting effects on children’s mental and physical development. In the case of cigarettes, the effects are nearly too numerous to count, and many cannot be directly treated.
The nefarious effects of cigarettes actually begin even before conception itself--according to the Center for Disease Control, smoking severely decreases the likelihood of becoming pregnant, likely due to the flood of toxic chemicals to the bloodstream. A Japanese study involving nearly 200,000 women found that expectant women who smoked drastically increased their risk of obstetric complications compared to the non-smokers. And even more significantly, women who smoked were estimated to have a 23% higher risk of stillbirth or have their child die of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).
In scientific terms, smoking disrupts placental regulation of lipid peroxidation. A healthy placenta is able to maintain a balance between the oxidant and antioxidant system, but when chemicals from cigarettes are introduced, this equilibrium is thrown out of balance, increasing lipid peroxidation (disruption of the cell wall) which ultimately leads to severe cell damage.
A few of the problems caused by exposure to cigarette toxins are visible immediately upon delivery. Not only are smoking-exposed fetuses more likely to be born prematurely, but they are more likely to be declared ‘SGA’ (Small for Gestational Age) and have stunted growth in multiple categories: length, weight, and head circumference have been shown to be lower than average in babies born to mothers who smoke. They also stand a 13% higher chance of being born with congenital malformations (in other words, physical birth defects), including heart defects, cleft lips, missing or misshapen limbs, and abnormalities related to the digestive organs and anus.
Many of the deleterious physical effects, however, extend far beyond the first months of life. Smoking while pregnant leads to a highly increased fetal risk for a host of lifelong complications involving major organs. Most notably, out of the seventeen subcategories of fetal heart defects, twelve have been linked to maternal smoking, and these twelve types are estimated to make up over 70% of the infant deaths caused by congenital heart defects. In addition, maternal smoking exacerbates the risk of decreased lung and kidney function, high blood pressure, obesity, and hospitalization and death from respiratory infections for decades past the child’s actual birth.
Impact on cognitive functioning?
Slightly more difficult to quantify but no less significant are the potential damages to brain function. Besides decreased brain volume, maternal smoking has been found to hinder the child’s ability to process information, respond to external stimuli, and comprehend language as well as their motor skills. Emory University’s Patricia A. Brennan discovered that children born to mothers who consumed one pack of cigarettes daily were over 200% more likely to become violent criminals--and that those individuals whose mothers smoked even a couple cigarettes on a daily basis were more likely to have criminal records in general. This may occur because nicotine causes a spike in in-utero testosterone, a hormone linked to higher aggression.
Although being exposed to cigarette toxins in-utero incurs the most damage, being exposed to secondhand smoke following birth interferes with infant sleeping cycles, increases the risk of lung infections and asthma, and again, leads to a higher chance of infants dying from SIDS. Sleep deprivation in early childhood linked to tobacco and nicotine exposure is more significant than in other periods of life because it may lead to decreases in learning and memory functions. This risk can be mounted both through secondhand smoke exposure and through transferral via breastfeeding.
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The period of fetal and early childhood development encompasses the years in which infants and children are most vulnerable to environmental stresses--and stand to be harmed the most from exposure to dangerous toxins and chemicals in ways that can impact them throughout the entirety of their lives. If you are unsure of how to quit smoking, consult your physician or outreach organization for strategies that can help and get your partner, family members, and friends involved for additional support. If you have been previously considering quitting smoking, now is the perfect opportunity to so--your child’s life, as well as your own, is at stake.
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