Birth Defects

Smoking and birth defects: Why it's important to avoid smoking while pregnant

Quitting smoking during pregnancy is often far more difficult than quitting at any other time. However, at no time in a woman's life is avoiding cigarettes more essential.

Smoking during pregnancy is harmful to both you and your unborn child. Smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth and severe vaginal bleeding, all of which can be potentially fatal to both mother and child. Cigarette use has also been linked to an increased risk of ectopic pregnancy, or pregnancy outside of the uterus. Except in very rare cases, an ectopic pregnancy cannot be brought to term and must be surgically removed to avoid injury or death to the mother.


If the threat to yourself cannot motivate you to quit, the threat to your child is far greater. Babies born to smokers are twice as likely to die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). They have an increased risk of certain birth defects, in particular a cleft lip or palate. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of a preterm delivery by about 30 percent. There is also a major increase in the risk of a low-birthweight child. Sadly, a low birthweight can lead to an entirely new host of problems, including chronic ear infections and pneumonia.

Even later in life, smoking during pregnancy can leave its mark, giving a child an increased risk of asthma, learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

Interestingly enough, women aren't the only ones who should quit smoking for the sake of their children. New studies have linked the fertilizing sperm of a smoking father to deformities in the arms and legs of babies.

Quitting smoking will not be easy, but it is very necessary. Quitting successfully requires forethought, knowledge and, of course, a heaping helping of willpower. Expect cravings, because you will get them. When your brain notices a deprivation in its nicotine levels, it responds by giving you a craving to cure that deprivation. Your brain may work on its own or be triggered by a place, time or activity that has come to be associated with smoking.

Remember, the craving WILL pass. Carol Orleans, a senior scientist with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, says that a cigarette craving will last between three and five minutes. When a craving hits, remind yourself that in five minutes it will be gone.

Recognize your cravings for what they are - your brain's desperate, last-ditch attempt to get you smoking - and then do whatever it takes to get through that five-minute span. Try drinking water, exercising, chewing gum or spending five minutes at your favorite hobby. Since you're pregnant, you can probably even get away with having a favorite snack without repercussion.

Cravings are strongest for three to five days after quitting, continue fairly forcefully for about two weeks and can be expected on and off for as long as a year. When you butt out that cigarette on day one, the road ahead can seem endless. Keep motivated, and reward yourself often! Remind yourself why you're doing this, and enjoy the fringe benefits of better health and more money along the way.

According to the U.S. Public Health Service, an elimination of the estimated 13 percent of pregnant smokers would lead to about a 10 percent reduction in infant deaths. Don't let yourself or your child be a statistic. "Butt out" today, and say hello to a healthier and happier tomorrow!

By Kathryn Lavallee