Almost Half of Pregnant Ex-Smokers Start Again After Baby Is Born

A new study shows that stopping smoking while pregnant is only temporary for many moms, despite the negative effects of smoking near baby. Here's why.

Almost Half of Pregnant Ex-Smokers Start Again After Baby Is Born mrkornflakes/Shutterstock

You probably already know that smoking during pregnancy has risks for your baby, so if you haven't quit before becoming pregnant, you might want to think about doing it now. But a new study published in the journal Addiction shows that public health efforts to get pregnant women to quit might not have gone far enough, because a large percentage go back to smoking before their baby is less than six months old.

Quitting during pregnancy doesn't last

Researchers analyzed data on the long-term success of pregnant women who had utilized an intervention, such as a stop-smoking support group or adviser, to help them quit. "We focused on women who received a cessation intervention as part of a clinical trial, as we thought these women would best represent women who will require support from health care providers," lead study author Matthew Jones, Ph.D., of the University of Nottingham in the U.K., tells Fit Pregnancy. "We found that only 13 percent of these women managed to be abstinent from smoking at delivery, and of these 13 percent, 43 percent had restarted smoking by six months postpartum."

Although it seems shocking that only 13 percent of pregnant smokers managed to quit, this is close to the number in a recent CDC report, which found only 20 percent quit by the third trimester. The important new finding of this study, though, is that among women who quit with help, almost half went back to smoking while their baby was still an infant. "As far as I and the other authors are aware, this is the first study to look at restarting smoking after birth among women who received an intervention," Jones says.

Related: Breastfeeding Stops Ex-Smoker Moms From Relapsing

The majority of pregnant women who quit do so "spontaneously," or without assistance from health care providers. Women who get help may be more nicotine-dependent and therefore find it harder to quit. Even so, both types of quitters find it hard to refrain after their baby is born. "Thirty-six to 70 percent of spontaneous quitters [depending on the study] restart by six months after birth," Jones says. "This study suggests that women who receive an intervention are just as likely to restart smoking as those who spontaneously quit."

Why are women who'd been able to successfully stop during pregnancy so quick to go back? "Quitting in pregnancy is often seen as temporary, and women resume normal behavior once they have given birth," Jones says. "Smoking is also a form of stress relief, so women smoke to relieve the stress of having a new child."

How to help new moms stay off cigarettes

Public health efforts got the word out that smoking has negative effects on unborn babies, such as miscarriage, premature birth, low birth weight and certain birth defects. But what has been less focused on is the effects of smoking after birth on baby—even if mom is not breastfeeding. "Smoking has been linked with several conditions with serious health implications, including childhood wheeze and asthma, increased rates of lower respiratory tract infections, glue ear [fluid in the ear], and sudden infant death," Jones says. Even if you smoke outside, smoke can linger on your clothes and hair, causing a baby who snuggles close to breath it in. "Furthermore, there is evidence which suggests that children raised by smoking parents, particularly a smoking mother, are more likely to pick up smoking themselves when they are older," Jones says. So "you can end up with a continuous cycle of smoking across generations."

Jones says its time for greater efforts to help women continue not to smoke after pregnancy. "Most research on cessation interventions given during pregnancy purely focuses on pregnancy itself and doesn't consider any outcomes post birth," he says. "Yet it can be argued that among children, exposure to passive smoking is just as detrimental as being exposed to smoking during pregnancy. We currently have very poor information whether cessation interventions are successful at getting mothers to stop smoking for extended periods of time. Investigating smoking after birth should be considered as important as smoking at birth in any future study."

If you are pregnant and a smoker, the best thing you can do for your baby is to get help quitting. Call the CDC's quit line, 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669), TTY 1-800-332-8615, or visit their website for more resources.