Nursing Stops Ex-Smoker Moms Relapsing

Breastfeeding: It might be better for breaking a smoking habit than a nicotine patch. Research shows that nursing a newborn helps new moms quit smoking for good.

Nursing Stops Ex-Smokers from Relapsing Syda Productions/Shutterstock

The benefits of breastfeeding are seemingly endless. It's accessible, free food for your baby filled with wholesome nutrition you can't get anywhere else. Nursing your newborn means a lower risk of SIDS, long-term protection against many chronic conditions like type 1 diabetes and celiac disease, and fewer weight problems for both mama and baby. And that's just the beginning. Now, researchers at SUNY Buffalo have found that breastfeeding may help defend against postpartum smoking relapse.

"We know from previous research that smokers are less likely to initiate breastfeeding, or to terminate breastfeeding early," lead study author Shannon Shisler told Fit Pregnancy. "Based on these previous findings, we suspected that if women could maintain breastfeeding for a longer period of time, they may be less likely to smoke."

Although many expecting mothers quit smoking while pregnant, more than half return to cigarettes within a year after giving birth. The only thing that seems to keep some women from taking up tobacco again is breastfeeding for at least three months, according to the study just published in Nicotine & Tobacco Research.

The analysis followed 168 women and discovered the promising trend that nursing meant they were less likely to smoke; women who breastfed for 90 days or more were smoking about two cigarettes per day whereas women who didn't breastfeed had about six per day. Given how time-consuming breastfeeding can be, it's no surprise that it's associated with lower cigarette consumption. But there may be other reasons why it's a protective factor.

Related: How to Quit Smoking Safely

"Moms who are breastfeeding are pretty invested in their infants' health, so it's extra motivation not to smoke," study author Pamela Schuetze, Ph.D., who worked with the group of researchers at the Research Institute on Addictions at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, told Fit Pregnancy. "There's a biochemical explanation [as well]. Breastfeeding releases oxytocin and prolactin, which relax the mom and increase her nurturing feelings." Schuetze notes that people often smoke to relax, so the hormones naturally released during nursing may effectively replace some desire for cigarettes.

Considering how detrimental cigarette smoke is to the health of infants, this is uplifting news for little ones born into environments where parents puff.

"In general, smoking during pregnancy and exposure to environmental tobacco smoke postpartum are related to increased risk of infant death, as well as poor health and behavioral outcomes—for example, aggression," Shisler says. "In the postnatal period in particular, exposure to environmental tobacco smoke has been consistently related to respiratory illnesses in children, as well as sudden infant death syndrome, so the more we can reduce infants' exposure to the toxins present in cigarette smoke, the better."

"The impact of smoking exposure during the first year of life is huge, because it impacts brain development and lung development," says board-certified ob-gyn Felice Gersh, M.D. "These are things that can never be reversed. You can't undo all the damage that occurs."

Related: Second-Hand Smoking and Premature Birth: Every Puff Matters

The key may be in educating women about the benefits of breastmilk and supporting them through those early weeks and months of nursing. In fact, a recent article in Breastfeeding Medicine demonstrates that far too few minority women breastfeed and it may be due to a lack of support from healthcare providers.

"[W]omen need to be educated about the potential health benefits of breastfeeding," Shisler says. "Healthcare providers both during and after pregnancy can be essential in providing this important information to expectant and new mothers."

What's more, Schuetze indicates that women with depression, anxiety, and less social support are more likely to smoke. And Gersh echoes that by noting that the woman's environment can be very influential—whether it's living with a partner or spouse who refuses to stop smoking or lacking the proper funding for sufficient prenatal care.

What all women should know is that smoking reduces milk production and nicotine can stay in breastmilk for up to three hours, so feedings should be timed accordingly and pumping and dumping should be considered when necessary.

But the bottom line is that Shisler and Schuetze urge all women to breastfeed, even those who can't give up cigarettes, because the benefits outweigh the risks of smoking while doing so.

Related: Smoking While Breastfeeding