16 May Smoking Biggest Factor in Low Birth Weight, Study Finds
Doctors and public health officials know that women who consume alcohol, drugs or nicotine during pregnancy run into increased risks to their own health and the health of their developing children. Two of these identified risks present heightened chances of giving birth prematurely and heightened chances of giving birth to a child with unusually low body weight. In a study published in March 2014 in the journal Substance Abuse, researchers from two U.S. universities compared the relative impact on birth weight and pregnancy duration associated with the consumption of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and tobacco by pregnant women.
Drug Use During Pregnancy
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists provides detailed information on the types of harms associated with substance use/abuse during pregnancy. For example, smoking during pregnancy can expose a developing child to a range of toxic chemicals and deplete the amount of oxygen and other essential nutrients traveling through the blood vessels in the placenta. Alcohol is toxic to all human beings, and especially toxic to developing babies, who have no means of converting alcohol into its less harmful byproducts. The specific effects of drugs on pregnancy vary according to the substance under consideration, and also according to the timing of drug use (first trimester, second trimester, etc.), the frequency of drug use and the amount of drugs consumed. In addition to premature birth and low birth weight, potential consequences of substance use/abuse during pregnancy include miscarriages, giving birth to children with fetal alcohol syndrome, giving birth to children with physical defects and giving birth to children who will go on to develop behavior and learning problems later in life.
Low Birth Weight and Premature Birth
Most newborn children weigh at least 6 lbs. Doctors will diagnose low birth weight in a newborn child who weighs less than 5.5 lbs. As a rule, this condition is a result of an unusual slowdown in the rate of fetal growth during pregnancy or premature birth. In addition to substance use, the potential underlying factors contributing to these problems may include poor prenatal care, inadequate diets in pregnant women and certain forms of serious infection. Premature birth (or preterm birth) refers to the delivery of a child before a pregnancy reaches its 37th week. Children born with a low body weight can develop a number of chronic health problems (such as heart disease and hypertension) in later life. Children born prematurely can develop serious complications that include incomplete growth and development, impaired vision or hearing, breathing difficulties and problems receiving nourishment from their mothers.
What’s the Impact?
In the study published in Substance Abuse, researchers from Wayne State University and East Tennessee State University used information gathered from 3,164 city-dwelling African-American women to gauge the relative impact of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and tobacco use on newborn birth weight and the length of pregnancy. All of these women were asked to self-report their use/abuse of each of these substances while pregnant. After enrolling in the study, each participant also received prenatal care and ultrasound testing until she gave birth.
After completing measurements of length of pregnancy and newborn birth weight for each mother, the researchers concluded that three of the four substances under consideration—tobacco (cigarettes), cocaine and alcohol—are capable of contributing significantly to a shortened pregnancy and thereby increasing the risks for premature birth. They also concluded that intake of three of the four substances—tobacco, marijuana and alcohol—predictably leads to a decline in newborn birth weight. In addition, the researchers concluded that older women encounter higher risks from substance use/abuse during pregnancy than younger women. For example, older pregnant women who smoke cigarettes and/or drink alcohol are particularly likely to give birth to low-weight children. When older women use heavy amounts of cocaine, tobacco, alcohol and marijuana, their newborns experience an average decline in body weight of 26 percent.
The authors of the study published in Substance Abuse note that the single form of substance use/abuse during pregnancy most strongly linked to low birth weight is heavy smoking. They also note that both cigarette use and drinking pose the biggest threats to the normal growth of a developing child. The authors believe that their project may represent the first attempt to quantify the impact of specific forms of substance use on newborn birth weight. They also believe that their work highlights the need for continued efforts to prevent alcohol, drug and nicotine use during pregnancy.
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