How does smoking during pregnancy affect the mental development of the fetus?

Written by sarah burger
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How does smoking during pregnancy affect the mental development of the fetus?
Smoking while pregnant can harm the foetus. (cigarette image by Henryk Olszewski from Fotolia.com)

Numerous links between maternal smoking and the physical development of the foetus show that mothers who smoke are more likely to have babies with low birth weight. The effects of smoking on the mental capacities of the foetus have also been studied, and smoking during pregnancy has been associated with impairments in academic performance, behaviour, and overall intelligence. Some researchers disagree, saying it is impossible to prove this cause and effect relationship.

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Why Cigarettes Are Harmful

When a pregnant mother inhales smoke, the smoke gets into her bloodstream, which is the baby's source of nutrients. According to Baby Center, cigarette smoke contains around 4,000 chemicals, including things like lead and cyanide, none of which are good for the growing foetus. Two very harmful chemicals are nicotine and carbon monoxide, which reduce the amount of oxygen a baby receives. These chemicals have been linked to both physical and mental problems in newborns.

Intellectual Impairment

Smoking during pregnancy could mean reduced intellectual ability as the child grows into adulthood. A study published in the January 2005 issue of Pediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology found that there was a correlation between maternal smoking and a reduced intelligence when the child grows into an adult. Similarly, a February 1994 study published in Pediatrics found that children whose mothers smoked 10 or more cigarettes a day had lower scores on intelligence tests at ages 3 and 4.

Memory and Language

Smoking can harm the baby's memory as well, which can lead to lower test scores as the child grows. Tobacco exposure was "significantly associated with deficits in learning and memory" according to the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. Children with learning and memory problems will see these effects in school and at home.

Language issues are affected, too. Lower test scores on reading and spelling tests occur more often in children whose mothers smoked during pregnancy, according to a study published in Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Behaviour

Behaviour, another aspect of mental development, can be affected by smoking. According to Pediatrics Magazine, children whose mothers smoked while they were in the womb are more likely to have increased rates of behaviour problems, including higher scores on the Behavior Problem Index, a parent-reported scale that measures levels of hyperactivity, depression, and anti-social behaviour.

Disagreements

Though these areas have been identified by researchers as places for concern, other medical experts disagree. In a July 24, 2008 article published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, Stephen E. Gilman, Hannah Gardener and Stephen L. Buka found that the evidence does not support a direct cause and effect relationship in this manner. Instead, they say that smoking "is embedded within a broader constellation of social, environmental, and clinical factors that have important consequences for child development." They believe that there is no solid proof that smoking causes mental deficits because all variables could not be accounted for.

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