The Effects of Smoking on Pregnancy and Childbirth
Smoking while pregnant can cause serious problems for your unborn child.
Smoking and Pregnancy
Smoking and pregnancy don't mix. Smoking while pregnant not only puts your own health at risk, but your unborn baby’s health as well. Cigarettes contain dangerous chemicals, including nicotine, carbon monoxide, and tar. It has been proven that smoking significantly increases the risk of numerous pregnancy complications, some of which can be fatal for the mother or baby.
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If you are trying to get pregnant, quitting smoking is a critical first step. Not only could smoking (even in the first trimester) affect the health of your unborn baby, it could be preventing you from getting pregnant in the first place. Smoking and second-hand smoke dramatically reduce fertility in both men and women. In fact, women who smoke are 60 percent more likely to be infertile compared to nonsmokers.
Miscarriage and Stillbirth
The unexpected loss of a pregnancy is a tragic event, no matter what stage. Miscarriages typically occur in the first three months of pregnancy, but on rare occasions, they can occur after 20 weeks of gestation. This is called a stillbirth. Smoking raises the risk of both early miscarriage and stillbirth, with the dangerous chemicals in cigarettes often to blame. Problems with the placenta or slow fetal development are also complications that can lead to a miscarriage or stillbirth.
Studies have found that nicotine can cause contractions in the fallopian tubes, preventing an embryo from passing through. One result of this is an ectopic pregnancy, which occurs when a fertilized egg implants outside of the uterus, sometimes in the fallopian tube itself or even in the abdomen. In this situation, the embryo must be removed to avoid life-threatening complications to the mother. Smoking makes an ectopic pregnancy up to five times more likely.
Smoking is a major risk factor for several problems with the placenta, the structure that forms during pregnancy to provide the fetus with nutrients and oxygen. One such problem is placental abruption, a condition when the placenta separates from the uterus before childbirth. Placental abruption can cause severe bleeding and threaten the life of both the mother and baby. There is no surgery or treatment to reattach the placenta, but immediate medical attention can help increase the chance of a healthy birth.
Smoking is a leading risk factor for placenta previa, which occurs in one out of 200 pregnancies. During pregnancy, the placenta normally moves with the uterus towards the top of the womb, leaving the cervix open for delivery. Placenta previa is when the placenta stays in the lower part of the uterus, partially or fully covering the cervix. The placenta often tears, causing excessive bleeding and depriving the fetus of vital nutrients and oxygen.
Premature birth rates are on the rise in the U.S., with more than half a million babies born prematurely every year. Several studies have shown a link between smoking and early delivery. There are numerous health risks associated with a preterm birth, including:
- visual and hearing impairments
- mental disability
- learning and behavioral problems
- complications that could result in death
A recent Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) study found that smoking in the first trimester of pregnancy raises the risk of heart-related birth defects by 20 to 70 percent. Congenital heart defects (problems with the structure of the heart) are the most common type of problem, but other health issues, including cleft lip and cleft palate, have also been linked to smoking while pregnant.
Low Birth Weight
A smoker is twice as likely to have a baby that weighs under 5.5 pounds. Low birth weight doesn’t just mean delivering a small baby—it can lead to other health problems and disabilities. Although advances in medical care have reduced the number of deaths as a result of low birth weight, it is a serious condition that can result in mental retardation, cerebral palsy, hearing or vision ailments, and the death of the baby.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified second-hand smoke as a Class A carcinogen, which is known to cause cancer in humans. Regular exposure to second-hand smoke is just as dangerous to a fetus as smoking while pregnant. It can result in many of the same complications, including miscarriage, low birth weight, and preterm birth.
The Unfortunate Truth
Despite the known risks, many pregnant women still smoke. According to the CDC, 13 percent of women report that they smoked during the last three months of pregnancy. Another study found that about one in four women who smoke while pregnant deny it. The only real way to avoid the pregnancy complications associated with smoking is to quit.
Resources to Help You Quit
For resources to help you quit, visit the Smoking Cessation Learning Center. Find out about howto start your journey to quitting, how to cope with nicotine withdrawal, and how to deal with relapse. Read these tips if you’re trying to help a spouse or partner quit.
You can also find free smoking cessation programs in your community or call the CDC's help line, 1-800-QUIT-NOW.