The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) identifies nicotine as one of the most addictive substances on earth. For some people with tobacco use disorder, kicking the habit is every bit as challenging as quitting heroin. However, for new mothers – as hard as it may be – quitting is one of the best things you can do for your newborn.
We’ve known for years that when new mothers smoke cigarettes, it has a wide range of negative health consequences for infants. More recently, researchers have discovered that smoking will increase the possibility the exposed infant will pick up the smoking habit as a teenager or adult.
It can also make quitting as an adult even more difficult.
Nicotine Changes the Brain
As technology becomes more sophisticated, researchers are learning how addiction affects the brain. When you inhale cigarette smoke, nicotine enters your bloodstream and travels to the brain. From there, it affects pathways for transmission of signals from one part of your brain to another. In other words, it changes the way different parts of the brain communicate.
Nicotine stimulates the brain’s reward system, which produces feelings of pleasure that makes kicking the habit so difficult. It also appears that the children of mothers who smoke are more likely to smoke as adults.
Scientists believe that when babies are exposed to nicotine or other addictive substances, their brain cells create a molecular memory that primes the brain for addiction in later years.
Researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine studied the brains of newborn mice exposed to nicotine via their mother’s milk. The study indicated that exposure to nicotine during the first few weeks of life actually changes the circuitry in the brain’s reward system. As a result, the mice were more likely to develop a preference for nicotine as they mature.
Children of Parents Who Smoke are More Likely to Smoke as Adults
Similar research conducted at Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University suggests that children of parents who smoke are more likely to be heavy smokers as adults. The Georgetown study involved more than 400 parents and their adolescent children between the ages of 12 and 17. The parents and their children were interviewed at the beginning of the project. Researchers followed up with the children a year later, and again five years later.
Researchers concluded that the longer children are exposed to nicotine, the higher the risk that smoking will become a habit later in life.
In addition, The National Institutes of Health (NIH) report that even a relatively brief exposure to secondhand smoke delivers enough nicotine to alter brain function.
There is still much to be learned before scientists have a full understanding of how addiction and substance abuse affect the brain. For instance, does early exposure to drugs such as alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and other opioids change the brain’s reward center in similar ways to nicotine?
Researchers also hope to determine if the changes in the brain can be reversed during childhood and adolescence. Hopefully, greater knowledge will lead to improved strategies for the treatment of addiction to nicotine and other substances.
Breastfeeding: What if You Can’t Quit Smoking?
Smoking is harmful anytime, but smoking around an infant exposes them to serious health risks. Through second-hand smoke alone, infants absorb nicotine, tar, carbon monoxide, and other toxic byproducts. While breastfeeding, nicotine passes from the lungs to the bloodstream to breastmilk. From there it passes directly to the infant.
Research published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicates that nicotine, and worse, second-hand smoke, cause the following health problems in infants and young children:
- Middle ear disease
- Respiratory problems
- Increases in pneumonia, bronchitis, and asthma
- Impaired lung function
- Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
In addition to these problems in children, secondhand smoke causes the following health issues in adults:
- Lung cancer
- Heart disease
- Poor arterial health
- Increase risk of stroke
Despite all these negative consequences of smoking for new mothers – consequences that affect both their babies and others around them – the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) indicates that mothers who smoke and want to breastfeed should go ahead and breastfeed. They should keep trying to quit,
How to Mitigate the Damage if You’re Still Smoking
Total abstinence is best, of course. But for mothers who haven’t managed to stop smoking, it’s best to cut down as much as possible.
First, new mothers should refrain from smoking for 90 minutes after breastfeeding. This reduces the amount of nicotine in breast milk by about fifty percent.
Second, new mothers should reduce infant exposure to secondhand smoke as much as possible. They should not allow people to smoke around their infant, nor should they let anybody smoke in a car or other enclosed area when their baby is present.
Third, new mothers should tell other smokers to wash their hands before holding their baby. They can ask them to smoke outside and wear a jacket that they can remove after smoking. Nicotine and other chemicals remain on fabric and adhere to carpets and walls.
This type of exposure to residual nicotine and other toxic chemicals is often known as thirdhand smoke. This exposure is harmful when babies put things in their mouths, or when they crawl on the floor. The residual chemicals are present in the room, even if they’re undetectable without scientific instruments.
According to the The Cleveland Clinic, removing thirdhand smoke is difficult. Even a thorough cleaning won’t remove most of the residual chemicals. For mothers who can’t stop smoking, it’s best never to smoke inside the home.
A final word to mothers with infants who are trying to quit: keep in mind that if you keep smoking, data shows they’re more likely to smoke, themselves. On the other hand, if you do quit, you teach them it’s possible – and in this case, quitting is a good thing.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.