I don’t smoke and neither do my sisters, but I do have relatives who have smoked all of their lives, and I’ve always wondered how it could have affected their children. We’ve heard for a long time that even second-hand smoke is bad for adults and children, but what are the prenatal effects?

The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children tested over 5,000 school-age children to see if they were in any way affected by prenatal exposure to nicotine. The study specifically looked at the children’s ability to read. The areas they tested were in fluency, accuracy, speed, spelling, and comprehension, which are included in most standard grade-level reading tests. The study also factored in the amount or level of nicotine the child was exposed to prenatally. The scale consisted of three categories:

  1. No exposure at all
  2. Exposure to less than 17 mg per day
  3. Exposure to more than 17 mg per day

The average cigarette has about 1 mg of absorbable nicotine, so up to 17 mg is still pretty heavy exposure for a fetus. The test concluded in the end that high prenatal exposure to nicotine does, in fact, impair a child’s reading ability. This is because long-term or high levels of prenatal exposure to nicotine actually decrease the number of newborn cells in the hippocampus.  

Many think that it’s the tobacco that causes the real problems, but both tobacco and nicotine are harmful prenatally all the way into adulthood. Second-hand smoke and prenatal exposure to tobacco have also been linked to low birth weight and possible chronic hypoxia. This combined with prenatal nicotine exposure creates problems for a child before they are even born. If a child is left in an environment where they are continually exposed to environmental tobacco smoke, they can develop even more health issues such as asthma, wheeze, cough, phlegm production, bronchitis, bronchiolitis, pneumonia, and impaired pulmonary function. Second-hand smoke has even been linked to snoring in some cases. Children are also more likely to develop ear infections when they are in an environment with heavy exposure to second-hand smoke as well.

It really can’t be said enough. Cigarettes are bad for adults, but it’s their decision to smoke and they understand the risks. Children are not as lucky. They don’t get to make the decision. Instead, they are unfairly exposed to the harmful results when their parents choose to smoke before, during, and after pregnancy.