The Dangerous Truth: How Smoking Harms Mothers and Babies During Pregnancy

Pregnancy is one of the most precious times in a woman’s life. As an expectant mother, you want to do everything you can to have a healthy baby. But if you smoke during pregnancy, you put both yourself and your unborn child at serious risk.

Keep reading to learn the sobering facts on how smoking affects pregnant women and babies—and why quitting can make a tremendous difference.

Smoking During Pregnancy: The Harsh Reality

Lighting up a cigarette may seem harmless enough. But when you’re pregnant, smoking poses significant health threats that can lead to lifelong consequences.

The dangerous chemicals in cigarettes restrict oxygen and nutrients getting to your baby. This can impair development and growth before birth. And the hazards don’t end after delivery—smoking can cause health issues that last through childhood and beyond.

So just how dangerous is smoking during pregnancy? Let’s look at the evidence-based research on how smoking harms both mother and child.

Increased Health Complications for Mothers Who Smoke

Smoking while pregnant puts you at higher risk for numerous health problems. These include:

  • Ectopic pregnancy: A potentially life-threatening condition where the embryo implants outside the uterus. Smoking makes ectopic pregnancies 2 to 4 times more likely.

  • Miscarriage: Up to 25% of women who smoke during pregnancy experience miscarriage. Chemicals in cigarettes can damage the developing placenta.

  • Premature rupture of membranes: Also known as water breaking too early. Smoking raises the risk of this complication by up to 80%.

  • Premature labor and delivery: The risk of preterm birth goes up by 25% to 50% for smokers. Prematurity is the leading cause of infant death.

  • Placental abruption: The placenta detaches from the uterine lining too early. This causes dangerous bleeding and deprives the baby of oxygen. Smokers have up to twice the risk.

  • Placenta previa: When the placenta covers the cervix, causing bleeding and potential complications. Smoking makes placenta previa 2 to 5 times more likely.

  • Abnormal bleeding: Smoking affects hormones and the reproductive system. This can lead to abnormal bleeding during pregnancy or delivery.

  • Reduced fertility: Smoking makes it harder to get pregnant and can hasten loss of reproductive function. Chemicals in cigarettes damage eggs and reproductive organs.

The more you smoke during pregnancy, the higher your risks. But even just a few cigarettes a day creates hazards for your health and your baby’s.

The Fetal Impacts of Smoking While Pregnant

Smoking doesn’t just affect the mother—it poses even greater risks for the developing fetus. Babies of smokers have higher chances of:

  • Birth defects: Cleft lip, cleft palate, defects of the brain, heart, limbs, and digestive system are all more common in babies exposed to cigarettes in utero.

  • Premature delivery: Up to 20% of preterm births occur because the mother smoked during pregnancy. Preemies often face health complications like respiratory distress, bleeding, and more.

  • Low birth weight: On average, smokers have babies weighing 150 to 400 grams less. Low birth weight raises the risk of infant mortality and chronic disease.

  • Impaired brain development: Smoking may impact the parts of the fetal brain that control emotions, impulses, and moods. This can lead to behavioral disorders as the child grows.

  • Impaired lung development: Chemicals in smoke restrict lung growth and function. This impacts breathing and raises the child’s risk of respiratory disease.

  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS): Around 5% to 10% of SIDS cases may stem from maternal smoking. Smoke exposure harms development of the nervous system.

  • Long-term health issues: Babies affected by smoking in utero have higher rates of asthma, infections, diabetes, obesity, and more later in life.

The dangers only increase with greater smoke exposure. But smoking even 1-2 cigarettes daily creates a measurable impact on your baby’s health.

Secondhand Smoke Also Puts Babies at Risk

You don’t have to be a smoker yourself for cigarettes to harm your unborn child. Secondhand smoke from family members or others in your environment also impacts fetal development.

Risks from secondhand smoke include:

  • Stillbirth: Exposure to secondhand smoke raises the risk of stillbirth by 23%. Chemicals and particles from smoke can impair oxygen flow to the fetus.

  • Preterm birth: Babies born to women exposed to secondhand smoke are up to 21% more likely to be premature.

  • Low birth weight: Just an hour of secondhand smoke exposure per day can result in babies up to 31% more likely to have low birth weight.

  • Birth defects: Cleft lip, cleft palate, and defects of the heart and digestive system are more common with secondhand smoke.

  • SIDS: Exposure after birth makes SIDS up to 4 times more likely. Secondhand smoke impairs development of the nervous system and lungs.

  • Childhood health issues: Secondhand smoke causes 150,000 to 300,000 respiratory infections in infants annually. It also increases asthma, allergies, and risk of infection.

Avoiding secondhand smoke is just as crucial as not smoking yourself during pregnancy. Talk to loved ones about quitting or not smoking around you.

Quitting Smoking During Pregnancy: Improved Outcomes

Reading about all the risks of smoking during pregnancy may feel disheartening. But the good news is that quitting at any stage in your pregnancy can significantly improve outcomes for you and your baby.

Within 12 weeks of your last cigarette, your blood circulation and lung function already start improving. Oxygen and nutrients can better reach your growing baby.

Studies show that women who quit smoking by week 12 of pregnancy lower their risk of preterm birth to that of a nonsmoker. Quitting also reduces the chances of birth defects and infant mortality.

Withdrawing from nicotine can be challenging both physically and mentally. But it’s one of the best things you can do for your pregnancy and your health.

Coping with Withdrawal Symptoms

For long-time smokers, withdrawal symptoms can feel intense at first. But they do subside with time.

Common symptoms like nicotine cravings, irritability, and trouble sleeping peak within the first 1-2 weeks. They continue improving over the next month.

Drinking water, exercising, and finding healthy distractions can help you push through the worst of it. Talk to your doctor about using nicotine replacement products to ease your transition.

Many women find that picturing their baby gives them motivation to quit. Support from loved ones also makes a major difference in being able to stay quit.

Getting Support to Quit Smoking

You don’t have to go through withdrawal alone. Various resources exist to help pregnant women successfully quit smoking:

  • Counseling and support groups: Speaking with a therapist or women going through the same experience gives you accountability and motivation.

  • Nicotine replacement: Products like gum, patches, and lozenges can curb cravings and make quitting more bearable. Use only under a doctor’s supervision.

  • Medications: Certain prescription meds like Zyban and Chantix may help you quit. Discuss risks/benefits with your OB-GYN.

  • Text/call programs: Some provide daily tips and encouragement to stay quit after you stop smoking.

  • Online communities: Connect with other moms online for advice and inspiration in your journey.

Don’t be afraid to lean on loved ones during this transition too. Ask them not to smoke around you and to support your resolve to quit.

Avoiding Triggers After You Quit Smoking

Once you make it through those initial withdrawal symptoms, staying quit comes down to avoiding things that trigger nicotine cravings.

Steer clear of smoking triggers like alcohol, caffeine, and stress during pregnancy. Fill your time with healthy distractions like walking, reading, and spending time with nonsmoking friends.

Avoid environments where you frequently smoked, like bars or certain rooms. And ask smokers close to you not to light up around you. The smell can intensify urges.

Cravings still come and go. But over time, they’ll continue fading as you adjust to your new smoke-free lifestyle.

Protect Yourself and Your Baby: Quit Smoking Today

If you’re a mom-to-be who smokes, quitting may feel daunting. But take it one day at a time, and trust that it does get easier.

Keep your focus on the huge benefits for you and your baby. With each smoke-free day, their health improves as your pregnancy progresses.

Don’t hesitate to get support and be kind to yourself through the process. You can do this—and your precious baby will thank you for it.

The time to quit is now. Because every cigarette you don’t smoke helps safeguard your health and the beautiful new life growing inside you. You’ve got this, mama.