Suppose you were about to take your baby into a room when you noticed a sign that read: Warning, this room contains poisonous gases of around 4,000 chemicals, some of which have been linked to cancer and lung damage, and are especially harmful to the breathing passages of young infants. “I certainly wouldn’t take my baby into there,” you conclude. Yet, that’s exactly what happens when you take your baby into a room frequented by smokers. “But we always sit in a non-smoking area of public places,” you add. This is helpful, but not enough. Having a “Non-smoking area” is like trying to chlorinate half a swimming pool. Pollutants travel through the air. “But I only smoke outside,” you rationalize. Also helpful, but not enough. Smoke sticks to clothing and hair. When your baby nestles on your shoulder with his nose on your smoke-contaminated clothing and near your hair your baby’s inhales pollutants.
Parents have a right to fume over the poisonous gases that come from a cigarette or cigar burning in their baby’s presence. Among the many toxic ingredients in cigarette smoke are the oxygen blocker carbon monoxide; benzene, a potential carcinogen; ammonia; hydrogen cyanide, which is used in making rat poison; formaldehyde; and of course, nicotine. Here are some of the effects.
1. Bothers little breathers. Any poison that deprives the infant of oxygen increases the risk of SIDS. Cigarette and cigar smoke deprive the infant of oxygen, which could interfere with development of the brain center that controls breathing. When the body is chronically deprived of oxygen, it tries to compensate by increasing the production of a chemical that facilitates oxygen transport, called 2,3 DPG. Levels of this substance have been found to be higher in children exposed to smoke, indicating they are trying to compensate for chronic oxygen deprivation. Cotinine, the main chemical produced when the body breaks down nicotine, has been found in the blood of babies exposed to passive smoke, proof that harmful chemicals enter babies’ bodies from cigarette or cigar smoke in the environment. Nicotine, cotinine, thiocyanate, and another nicotine byproduct, have also been found in the blood of breastfeeding infants whose mothers smoke. (Whether these poisons enter the baby via mothers’ milk or secondhand smoke is uncertain.) The blood levels of the nicotine byproducts were proportional to the number of cigarettes smoked by the mother.
2. Hurts little hearts. Besides being harmful to growing lungs, smoking may harm growing hearts. Levels of HDL, best known as the “good cholesterol” that may protect from heart disease, was lower in children of smoking parents. In addition, researchers have found high levels of cotinine in the fluid around the hearts of some infants who died of SIDS. Smoke toxins have also been implicated in depressing the automatic regulation of heart rates.
3. Injures little brains. Previously, I mentioned how smoking prenatally may retard the growth of baby’s brain. It appears that the brain of a baby of a smoker doesn’t fare much better outside the womb. In experiments, nicotine acts as a breathing stimulant to animals that are breathing normally. But as soon as their breathing is compromised, nicotine seems to depress the compensatory breathing control mechanisms in the brain that should return the animal’s breathing to normal. It is possible that a smoking mother’s infant, whose breathing is already compromised, say, from a cold, could fail to restart breathing because of the effects of nicotine.
4. Blocks little noses. The nasal passages of babies are particularly sensitive to smoke and other irritants and allergens. Also, some babies are obligate nose breathers; meaning they insist on breathing through their nose and, unlike adults, do not switch to mouth breathing if their noses are blocked. Nasal passages that are stuffy and blocked because of smoke could compromise baby’s breathing.
The lower respiratory tract is lined with tiny filaments, called “cilia,” which wave back and forth to clear mucous from the airway passages and help keep them open. Smoke paralyzes these cilia, leaving the increased mucous that is secreted during colds and allergies to clog the air passages. Children of smoking parents have two to three times more doctor visits because of respiratory infections. Respiratory viruses are frequently found at postmortem examination of SIDS infants. Respiratory infections within two weeks of death have been implicated in setting up a baby for SIDS.
- If both parents smoke, baby’s SIDS risk is 3½ times greater than if neither parent smokes.
- If mother smokes, but father doesn’t, baby’s risk is 2 times greater.
- If father smokes, but mother doesn’t, baby’s risk is 1½ times greater.