Smoking During Pregnancy: Understanding the Risks

Quitting smoking is hard, and smokers can easily turn a blind eye to how it affects their health. However, for women who are trying to get pregnant or have just discovered that they are, smoking has the potential to directly affect your baby’s health, as well as your own.

Here we look at the effects of smoking during pregnancy and when trying to conceive and how quitting for good will give your child a healthy start to life.

How Does Smoking Affect Pregnancy?

Tobacco smoke contains thousands of harmful chemicals which can affect you and your baby throughout the stages of pregnancy.

Common risks of smoking during pregnancy include:

Ectopic Pregnancy – Nicotine has been shown to cause contractions of the fallopian tube. This can lead to a fertilised egg implanting outside the uterus.1

Miscarriage and Stillbirth – Stillbirth and miscarriage have been linked to smoking at all stages of pregnancy.2

Placental Abruption – Smoking can increase the likelihood of placental abruption, a devastating condition where the placenta separates before childbirth.3

Placental Previa – Smokers are also more likely to suffer placental previa, a condition where the placenta attaches in an abnormal position within the uterus.4

Preterm Birth – Smoking can cause babies to be born too early and develop health conditions including visual and hearing impairments, mental disabilities and learning and behavioural problems.

Low Birth Weight – Low birth weights are a common outcome of smoking during pregnancy, with average birth weights recorded at 320g lower than in those who do not smoke.5

Birth Defects – A range of birth defects have been linked to smoking, some of which may affect your child for life. Congenital heart defects are among the most common, while links between cleft lips and palates have also been shown.

Put simply, smoking during pregnancy can put you and your child at risk for a range of health conditions.

Let’s take a look at the impact of smoking throughout the different stages of pregnancy.

Smoking and Trying to Get Pregnant

If you are trying to conceive, smoking can make this a difficult process. Both male and female fertility can be affected by this habit, and there is even evidence suggesting that smoking also reduces the efficacy of fertility treatments such as IVF.6

For men, smoking means sperm count can be reduced by as much as 13-17%, while also affecting the quality of the surviving sperm. For women, smoking has a significant effect on the fallopian tubes and the cervix, meaning that smokers are 1.6 times more likely to experience infertility7. Additionally, research suggests that cigarette smoke has a drastic effect on ovarian function, with a 50% reduction in viable embryos.8

Thankfully, according to the same study, women who quit smoking before trying to conceive were shown to have the same pregnancy rate as non-smokers. Quitting will also make you feel healthier and is likely to increase libido and sexual desire in both you and your partner9 — giving you a better chance of conceiving.

Smoking in Early Pregnancy

If you’re wondering when to stop smoking when pregnant, the answer is as soon as you find out you’re going to have a baby.

Despite health advice and guidance highlighting the impact of smoking in pregnancy, many people still believe that smoking poses no risk during the early stages. In truth, smoking at any point in your pregnancy carries significant risks for you and your child.

The effects of smoking during early pregnancy are clear, with multiple studies linking smoking with reduced gestational age during the first trimester, resulting in embryos being 2-6 days behind normal growth.10

If you are a smoker who has recently discovered they are pregnant during the first trimester, quitting today will significantly increase your chances of a healthy birth – the earlier you quit, the better it will be for you and your baby.

The Risks of Continuing Smoking in Pregnancy

Continuing smoking in pregnancy carries risks and complications for both you and your child that can be avoided if you quit. As your baby develops, the harmful chemicals found within cigarettes may cause tissue damage, particularly in areas such as the lungs and brain. Studies also link smoking and miscarriages, with mothers who continued smoking during their pregnancy being more likely to miscarry.11

Additionally, even light smoking during pregnancy can affect your baby. Smoking can prevent your baby from receiving enough oxygen as it develops, with the carbon monoxide found in tobacco smoke affecting your baby’s growth. Smoking while pregnant has also been associated with:

  • 5 to 8% of premature babies
  • 13 to 19% of babies with low birth weight when carried to full term
  • 5 to 7% of deaths related to preterm birth
  • 23 to 34% of deaths caused by SIDS (cot death)12

Despite myths relating to nicotine withdrawal and the stress this puts on you and your baby, experts agree that continuing smoking actually increases rather than decreases stress.13 Quitting today can have a positive impact on you and your child.

Smoking After Pregnancy

Once you’ve given birth, it’s important to continue your quitting journey to keep your baby healthy.

Second-hand smoke has been proven to harm the people around you, and this is even more true for your baby. If you are still smoking at this point, there are still multiple benefits to quitting that should motivate you to give up for good. SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) has been linked to second-hand smoke after pregnancy14, while children that inhale smoke from their parents may suffer from bronchitis and pneumonia within their first year.

A lifetime of second-hand smoke is not only linked to cancer and other diseases in children but also increases the chances that your child will become a smoker later on in life. Quitting today means your child will have a healthy start to life and be less likely to smoke as they grow up.

How to Stop Smoking When Pregnant

With the exception of prescription drugs, there are many methods of quitting smoking that are considered safe for pregnant women.

NRT is safe to use while pregnant15, helping you to relieve some of the most intense cravings while avoiding the dangerous chemicals found in tobacco smoke. Additionally, if you suffer from pregnancy-induced nausea, nicotine patches are an alternative way to ensure your cravings are kept at bay without increasing the feeling that you need to vomit.

If you’re struggling to quit smoking while pregnant, there is lots of support out there to help you on your journey. To learn more about the effects of smoking during pregnancy, and how to stop smoking while pregnant, contact your local pharmacist, speak to your doctor, or contact the NHS stop smoking helpline today.

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