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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

The Effects Of Tobacco Smoke On Children

Smoking During Pregnancy

From the moment a woman becomes pregnant, just about everything she eats, drinks and inhales reaches her baby. Cigarette smoke in a mother's bloodstream crosses the placenta and introduces harmful chemicals into the fetus' blood. A woman who smokes during pregnancy has a higher risk of miscarriage and stillbirth. Smoking also makes it more likely that she will deliver an underweight baby, who will be at increased risk of disease and even death during infancy and early childhood. Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is more common in infants of women who smoked while they were pregnant, as are brain damage, cerebral palsy, behavioral disorders and learning disabilities.

Smoking Around An Infant

Infants exposed to tobacco smoke have an increased risk of death of sudden infant death syndrome. Maternal smoking may be responsible for an estimated one-third of SIDS cases.

Smoking around an infant increases his risk of respiratory illnesses, including chronic cough and pneumonia. Babies who live in households where smoking occurs have more doctor visits, emergency department visits and hospitalizations than babies not exposed to secondhand smoke.

Smoking also interferes with a nursing mother's milk supply and can introduce harmful substances to the baby through her breast milk.

Smoking Around A Child

Children who live in households where people smoke are more likely to have cough, shortness of breath and other respiratory symptoms; irritation of the eyes, nose and throat; and colds and ear infections. Their risk of pneumonia and asthma is also increased. They are more likely to require surgery for recurrent ear infections and tonsillitis.

If a child's parent smokes, the child may view smoking as acceptable. Children whose parents smoke are more likely to pick up the habit than children whose parents don't smoke. Adolescents who smoke are more likely than nonsmokers also to use other drugs, including alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. There is evidence that smoking during adolescence — the time when most people begin smoking — may cause genetic changes that lead to lung cancer among former smokers later in life.

Quit Now

It's not easy to quit smoking, but you can do it. More than 1 million people quit successfully each year.

If you do not yet have children, quit smoking before you become pregnant (or your spouse becomes pregnant). Give yourself plenty of time to quit. If you use nicotine-replacement products to help you quit, it is important for your baby's health that you have stopped using them by the time you conceive.

If the pregnancy is already underway or your baby is already born, quit as soon as possible. Quitting at any time is better than not quitting at all. Don't think you can spare your baby or child the effects of secondhand smoke by smoking in another room of your home, away from your child. Air circulates, and smoke sticks to carpeting and fabrics. All the occupants of your house will breathe your smoke. It takes more than three hours for 95 percent of the smoke from a single cigarette to clear a space.

Help With Quitting

Before you try to quit smoking, you may want to talk with your doctor about medications that can help you quit by easing withdrawal symptoms. There are several nicotine-replacement products, some of which are available without a prescription. There is also a prescription medication called bupropion (Zyban) that helps some people to quit. In addition to using medication, you may want to attend a smoking-cessation class or support group.

These tips have helped smokers become ex-smokers.

  • Set a quit date, and spread the news to family and friends to gain their support.
  • Exercise to improve your energy and avoid weight gain.
  • Drink lots of water. Avoid beverages, such as coffee and alcoholic drinks that you may associate with smoking.
  • Avoid smokers and environments where smoking is common, particularly for the first few weeks.
  • List your reasons for quitting, and repeat the reasons to yourself regularly.
  • If at first you don't succeed, try again! Most former smokers quit for a short time more than once before they successfully quit for good.

If you can't quit (yet), protect your children:

  • Smoke outside, and ask visitors to smoke outside.
  • Change your clothes as soon as you enter your home.
  • Never smoke in the car.
Last updated March 11, 2008