Ultrasound Scans Reveal How Smoking during Pregnancy May Delay Development

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The dangers of smoking during pregnancy, which include an increased risk of breathing problems, premature birth, and cot death, have been discussed for decades. Unfortunately, the struggle to stop is still just too much for many mothers. Dr. Nadja Reissland, author of a new study on the effect of cigarette smoke on fetuses, hopes to change all of that.

Reissland, of Durham University, used 4D ultrasound scan images to record thousands of movements of 20 fetuses. Four of them were to be born to mothers that smoked an average of 14 cigarettes per day. The remaining infants were to be born to mothers that did not smoke. What she found is strong evidence that smoke exposure in utero could delay development.

Top row: Fetuses of smoking mothers at 32 weeks; Bottom: Non-smoking mothers /via Nadja Reissland, Durham University

Top row: Fetuses of smoking mothers at 32 weeks; Bottom: Non-smoking mothers /via Nadja Reissland, Durham University

According to Reissland, as fetuses develop, they typically touch their mouths and faces a lot less frequently. This signifies that their central nervous systems are maturing. But when looking at the 4D scans—taken at 24, 28, 32, and 36 weeks—Reissland found that the fetuses exposed to smoke seemed to touch their faces a lot more than those carried by non-smoking mothers. She says this suggests that these babies have delayed development of their central nervous systems.

“What you normally see is there is a kind of decline in movements and an integration of movements,” Reissland told Daily Mail. “And what I found then is that the fetuses of smoking mothers seemed to move more compared to the fetuses of non-smoking mothers, specifically in terms in their mouth movements, but also in terms of their touch behavior.”

“Technology means we can now see what was previously hidden, revealing how smoking affects the development of the fetus on ways we did not realize,” co-author Professor Brian Francis, of Lancaster University, added. “This is yet further evidence of the negative effects of smoking in pregnancy.”

Reissland, who says that more studies should be done to confirm her theory, reminds us that the goal isn’t to shame smoking mothers, but to find ways to encourage them to quit. She hopes that this information—complete with video—could someday be used to do just that.

“I’m really grateful. They did a good thing. These are special people and they overcame the stigma to help others,” she said about the participants in the study. “Ideally, like further in the future, would be that we can actually have it for patient benefit by looking at whether, when we show mothers educational videos . . . [if ] they might be more inclined to stop smoking.”

And, at the end of the day, that should be the goal—to help struggling mothers quit smoking to help improve the health of not only themselves, but also their babies.

Another study researched the efficacy of a program that paid mothers to quit smoking. Although controversial, and potentially difficult to fund on a large scale, the author’s research on such a program proved to be rather successful in helping mothers quit smoking.

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About the Author

Kate Givans is a wife and a mother of five—four sons (one with autism) and a daughter. She’s an advocate for breastfeeding, women’s rights, against domestic violence, and equality for all. When not writing—be it creating her next romance novel or here on Growing Your Baby—Kate can be found discussing humanitarian issues, animal rights, eco-awareness, food, parenting, and her favorite books and shows on Twitter or Facebook. Laundry is the bane of her existence, but armed with a cup of coffee, she sometimes she gets it done. Find out more about Kate’s books at authorkategivans.com.

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