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The Dangerous Substance You Should Be Avoiding While Pregnant

Cigarette smoke can seriously harm your baby — even if you’re not the one smoking.

July 19, 2021
Alexandra Ross

It has been known for a long time that smoking is not good for pregnant mothers. Cigarette smoke causes a wide variety of harms to the body, and when you are pregnant, these harms extend to the developing baby.

Many have wondered over the years whether small amounts of cigarette smoke, such as through secondhand smoke, are harmful for pregnant women and babies. Thanks to a new study, we know the definitive answer to this question is yes. This study underscores the need for a smoke-free environment for pregnant women.

a blonde woman exhales smoke from a cigarette as she sits at her kitchen table
Cigarettes are known to cause lung cancer and other health struggles for smokers. In the case of pregnant women, harmful effects of smoking extend to their growing babies.

How does cigarette smoke harm my baby?

You may think the risks of smoking while pregnant boil down to just the impact of nicotine, but you’d be wrong. In fact, there are many ingredients in cigarettes that can be harmful, even deadly, to your baby.

These ingredients include carbon monoxide, tar, and nicotine, amongst others. They can reduce the amount of oxygen available to your baby, and cause a number of dangerous complications. If you smoke while pregnant, you are more likely to enter into preterm labor. Your baby is also more likely to have a birth defect or low birthweight, both of which may have a serious impact on your baby’s health.

Most alarmingly, mothers who inhale cigarette smoke while pregnant are more likely to lose their baby to miscarriage or stillbirth. Additionally, smoking while pregnant increases the risk of your baby dying from sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, after birth.

In addition to harming your baby, inhaling cigarette smoke while pregnant can cause a number of harms to your body and your pregnancy. You could have issues with the placenta, including placental abruption, where the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus. You are also more likely to experience an ectopic pregnancy, which ends in pregnancy loss and sometimes death of the mother.

Three men sit on a red couch. The man in the middle is lighting a cigarette, while the other two are reading and eating
While eliminating your own smoking habits can help the health of your baby immensely, it may not be enough. Secondhand smoke can also harm your baby in serious ways, and should be avoided.

What about secondhand smoke?

Some believe that secondhand smoke is not harmful to babies, as it is inhaled in much smaller amounts than smoking directly. However, this is not backed by science. 

The journal Environmental Health Perspectives recently published a study by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center, which is the first to connect secondhand smoke during pregnancy with epigenetic modifications to disease-related genes. 

“Even low levels of smoke from secondhand exposure affect epigenetic marks in disease-related pathways,” said Bernard Fuemmeler, Ph.D. M.P.H., who led the study. “That doesn't mean everyone who is exposed will have a child with some disease outcome, but it contributes to a heightened risk.”

Data was analyzed from 79 pregnant women between 2005 and 2011, whose cotinine (a byproduct of nicotine) levels were measured in the first trimester. After the women gave birth, researchers used their umbilical cord blood to search for connections between cotinine in the first trimester and epigenetic patterns. 

What they found was that higher cotinine levels (indicating more nicotine exposure) correlated with a higher likelihood of having epigenetic marks on genes related to brain function, diabetes, and cancer. These marks increased the risk of disease. 

The researchers repeated this analysis in another sample of 115 women and found similar results. Even small increases in cotinine, reflecting secondhand smoke exposure, increased a baby’s chance of having epigenetic changes.


black and white photo of a blonde woman staring out the window at a rainy city as she smokes a cigarette
Quitting smoking and other nicotine products is essential for your baby’s health. You don’t have to do it alone — there are a variety of resources you can use for support in your journey towards a nicotine-free life.

What can I do to protect my baby from cigarette smoke?

Before considering any other options, it is important to know that the only way to prevent all damage done by smoking during pregnancy is to quit smoking. While there are alternative nicotine sources for smokers which may reduce some risks, they are still not considered totally safe or optimal.

If it is at all possible, quitting smoking (and all other forms of nicotine) is the best thing you can do for yourself and your baby. Additionally, avoiding contact with secondhand smoke is essential. 

Unfortunately, not everyone is able to quit using nicotine. In the event that someone is unable to overcome their nicotine cravings and quit smoking, there are other ways they can curb their cravings that will slightly reduce the risk of harming their baby.

One option is the nicotine patch. The nicotine patch does not contain most of the harmful chemicals inhaled when smoking cigarettes, such as carbon monoxide and tar. Many are able to quit nicotine entirely after transitioning to the patch. 

Despite these benefits, the nicotine patch is not harm-free. It sends a constant supply of harmful nicotine through the bloodstream. Because of this, doctors recommend removing the patch when sleeping to reduce the baby’s exposure to nicotine.

They also recommend the use of nicotine lozenges or gum as opposed to the patch. These options do not constantly send nicotine into your body. Instead, they are only used when someone experiences a craving. 

It is not considered safe to vape while pregnant. In addition to harmful nicotine content, e-cigarettes contain a wide variety of additives and chemicals which might not be safe for a developing baby. 

a hand holding a smoking cigarette between two fingers. photo is black and white.
Smoking is often used as a coping mechanism for mental health struggles such as depression and anxiety. Getting proper mental health support, such as through a therapist, could help you to be more successful with quitting.

Overall, the best possible thing you can do for your own health, and the health of your baby, is to quit smoking. Alternative options, like the patch, gum, or lozenges, reduce the harmful impact of chemicals such as carbon monoxide and tar, and can be useful for those struggling to quit. However, they contain nicotine, which is still harmful.

These harms extend to even the smallest amounts of smoking — in fact, even secondhand smoke is not considered safe. If your partner, roommates, or close friends and family smoke on a regular basis, do what you can to reduce your exposure to their secondhand smoke. This might include asking people to distance themselves from you when they are smoking, or choosing not to attend gatherings where people may smoke.

Protecting your child from the harms of cigarette smoke may not be easy, but it is worth it. You and your baby will be healthier and happier as a result.

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