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Smokers Beware: Baby on Board March 4, 2010

Posted by Marquita Campbell in Environmental Health, Health Communications & Marketing, Prevention.
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Did you know that second-hand tobacco exposure has significant health risks to an expectant mother? Many times people only think of the risks of maternal smoking during pregnancy, but secondary smoke exposure can also have significant health implications. Every thing a mother is eating or breathing from prenatal vitamins to second-hand tobacco smoke is passed from the mother’s placenta to the baby.   According to the Mayo Clinic, “women who are exposed to second-hand smoke during pregnancy are at higher risk of having babies of slightly lower birth weight.” Miscarriage in early pregnancy can also be attributed to second-hand tobacco exposure. However, while avoiding second- hand tobacco exposure during pregnancy is important, avoiding it throughout a lifespan is ideal, particularly for the children themselves. The Surgeon General states:

  • Infants who are exposed to secondhand smoke are more likely to die of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) compared with infants who are not exposed.
  •  Children who are exposed to secondhand smoke are at increased risk for bronchitis, pneumonia, ear infections, severe asthma, respiratory symptoms, and slowed lung growth.

In my experience, as a research assistant in a randomized-controlled study in a inner city obstetrics clinic in Washington, DC, I learned that while many pregnant women may not know all the risks of second-hand exposure they do know smoking in general is unhealthy. Preliminary results show that of the women given an education intervention, many women considered second-hand smoke exposure during pregnancy of high importance. However, the women’s ability to be confident in avoiding second-hand smoke exposure was more varied.  Some of this variance can be attributed to an expectant mother living’s arrangements and the habits of the people who she keeps company with. Helping mothers to understand the risks and take a stand against secondhand tobacco exposure can be challenging especially if they live with someone who smokes be it a boyfriend, husband, or even grandparent. Being able to negotiate with family members is critical to the health of a newborn or infant. The mother must think of her child first and weigh the costs even if it means alternative living arrangements.

In my opinion, there needs to be a paradigm shift about smoking in front of pregnant women and children. Mothers should be informed and be able to explain the risk to family members. Mothers should ask family members, especially the ones they live with, to smoke outside of the house because smoking inside tends to remain inside materials like fibers of a sofa. This is an example of indirect tobacco exposure over an extended time. Additionally, mothers must advocate for loved ones to wash their hands before any interaction with the baby because of the risk of second-hand exposure is present. Mothers should encourage and support loved ones who they know are trying to quit smoking.

Last but not least, the burden of responsibility should not be all on mothers but also on the public health community to do a better job at social marketing by developing a campaign for this specific population of pregnant women and their children. Public health educators can also support tobacco free homes and legislation that would prevent individuals from smoking in public places. Additionally, doctors can provide counseling and/ or referrals for fathers or family members who would like to stop smoking. However, it is important to keep in mind nicotine is very addictive and so patience is needed to be able to wean smokers off of tobacco. With these positive changes, I believe the days of miscarriages and low birth weight and premature infants as a result of tobacco exposure will be numbered.

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