A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Smoking during pregnancy can cause long-term problems for babies; stop smoking now


By Maridith Yahl
KyForward reporter

Smoking during pregnancy affects how the baby takes in oxygen, how the baby develops and has negative effects which can present from birth into adulthood.

“When a mother smokes while pregnant, the baby is absorbing carbon monoxide, nicotine, and other cancer-causing chemicals in cigarettes,” says Cady Cornell, Tobacco Health Educator, Northern Kentucky Health Department (NKY Health).

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that nationwide, 7.2% of women smoke during pregnancy. Kentucky has an alarmingly much higher rate, the second highest in the nation, at 18.7%.

Cady Cornell

Women who smoke may have difficulty conceiving. Once pregnant, the chances of miscarriage are significantly increased. Smoking during pregnancy accounts for 10% of miscarriages, according to the American Lung Association and for 20-30% of low-birthweight (LBW) babies says the CDC.

“A baby is considered to have a low birth weight when the baby is less than the 10th percentile of weight based on the number of weeks of gestations (e.g. time spent in the womb prior to birth),” Angie McMillen, RN, Community Health Nurse at NKY Health says. McMillen works to refer her pregnant patients to resources for quitting.

The March of Dimes explains how low-birth-weight (LBW) babies are prone to respiratory distress, bleeding in the brain, and infections at birth. However, their problems do not end in infancy. LBW babies have long-term complications. Into adulthood, they are more likely to have diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and intellectual and developmental disabilities according to the March of Dimes.

Angie McMillen

Smoking while pregnant leads to other repercussions for the baby. An immediate, obvious effect is cleft lip and cleft palate, of which both are linked to smoking. Other consequences can include Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and depression because smoking effects developing brain tissue and chemical messengers for the nervous system (neurotransmitters).

The good news is that there are resources to help women who smoke to quit before getting pregnant, during pregnancy, and even after giving birth.

Quitting, at any time, is a good thing. The body begins to heal immediately. The American Lung Association is a great resource for quitting and learning those benefits. Twenty minutes after quitting, the heart rate drops to a normal level. In a short 12-24 hours, the carbon monoxide level in the blood drops to normal and the risk for a heart attack is significantly reduced. In 2 weeks to 3 months after, the risk of heart attack drops, and lung function begins improving.

Kentucky Moms Maternal Assistance Towards Recovery (Ky-Moms MATR) at NorthKey Community Care, is a program that specifically focuses on moms wanting to quit tobacco, alcohol, or other substance use. The program provides education and case management/service coordination. Classes are free, at NorthKey locations, and women attending earn free baby items.

Kentucky offers a QUIT NOW program. Check out the website here. It is free and also provides free nicotine replacement therapy for those who qualify.

Check with your local Health Department for programs in your community. Your local hospitals may also offer free quit-smoking programs.

“Given the addictive aspect of nicotine, it is not surprising that it takes an average of nine attempts to quit smoking. Some people quit on the first try and for others, it may take a few more,” says Cornell. She says having a plan to wean off nicotine while also getting support for the emotional and mental side of smoking is most successful.

Such an addictive and toxic chemical can change your life and your baby’s life. You do not have to quit smoking alone.

Help is out there, ask for it.


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