Becoming pregnant leads many women to reduce or quit smoking, but many start smoking again after giving birth. A new study suggests, however, that breastfeeding could help prevent a relapse into old habits.
The study, published in Nicotine & Tobacco Research, set out to examine changes in smoking from the first prenatal appointment through 9 months postpartum among 168 women who smoked during their pregnancy.
According to the study authors, an estimated 70% of women who quit smoking when pregnant relapse within the first year of giving birth. Approximately 67% of these resume smoking within 3 months and up to 90% are estimated to relapse within 6 months.
Smoking during pregnancy may cause a number of health problems for an unborn child as the baby is exposed to harmful chemicals such as carbon monoxide that limit its supply of oxygen and nutrients. These problems include premature birth, birth defects and pregnancy loss.
Pregnant mothers who smoke can also increase the risk of several health problems affecting a baby after they are born, such as asthma, childhood obesity and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The dangers of smoking do not vanish after pregnancy, however, and resuming smoking habits can be dangerous.
“Increase in tobacco consumption after the birth of a child may have harmful effects on both the mother, and the infant who is at higher risk of exposure to environmental tobacco smoke,” states Shannon Shisler, an author of the study from the University at Buffalo, State University of New York.
For the study, the researchers obtained data on maternal smoking that was verified through analysis of saliva samples. For each participant, interviews were conducted throughout the duration of the study, assessing breastfeeding, use of other substances and partner smoking as potential predictors of changes in smoking habits.
They found that by 9 months after giving birth, the women had returned to over half their levels of tobacco consumption prior to conception. “Although women decreased their tobacco consumption across their pregnancy, by 9 months postpartum they had substantially increased their smoking,” observes Shisler.
However, one predictor was found that indicated significant changes in smoking patterns from pregnancy to 9 months postpartum. The researchers found that women who breastfed their babies for at least 90 days smoked far less than women who did not breastfeed or only breastfed for a short time.
Shisler suggests that breastfeeding could be used to help lower the risk of postpartum smoking relapses:
“Breastfeeding seems to be a protective factor against increases in smoking after childbirth, so interventions should educate women about breastfeeding to maximize effectiveness. Supporting women through at least 3 months of breastfeeding may have long-term benefits in terms of smoking reduction.”
Smoking can potentially decrease a mother’s production of milk and contaminate breast milk with harmful chemicals. These reasons may explain a reluctance in breastfeeding mothers to start smoking again after pregnancy.
The authors conclude that relapse prevention or harm reduction interventions for new mothers should ideally be timed to commence soon after birth. In addition to supporting women through at least 3 months of breastfeeding, the authors suggest promoting breastfeeding among pregnant smokers could be beneficial to these interventions.
Last month, Medical News Today reported on a study published in The Lancet Global Health suggesting that prolonged breastfeeding is linked to higher intelligence, longer schooling and greater earnings as an adult.