Study: Smoking One Cigarette A Day While Pregnant Can Drastically Increase SIDS Risk

The risk of sudden infant death is a very real fear for new parents, and anything that can be done to reduce the chances of it seems like a great way to help ease that worry. Now, a new study gives one recommendation, and a bit more insight, having found that smoking during pregnancy may increase the risk of sudden death in babies more than previously believed.

The study was a collaboration between Seattle Children’s Research Institute and Microsoft data scientists, according to a press release from Eureka Alert, and it was published in the March issue of Pediatrics. What researchers found is that even one cigarette a day increases the chances of losing a baby to sudden unexpected death. In fact, that risk is doubled for even one cigarette per day, according to CNN, and increases by .07 with each additional cigarette.

“Every cigarette counts," lead study author Tatiana Anderson told CNN. “And doctors should be having these conversations with their patients and saying ‘Look, you should quit. That’s your best odds for decreasing sudden infant death. But if you can’t, every cigarette that you can reduce does help.”

The study is a striking breakthrough in the worry over SIDS for parents and provides something concrete in relation to an often-murky topic. One of the best aids in fighting SIDS came in 1994 when the “back to sleep” campaign was started to urge parents to put babies down to sleep on their backs to avoid the risk of suffocation. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, that resulted in a drop from 4,700 SIDS deaths in 1993 to 2,063 in 2010.

To conduct this new study, researchers pulled data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that analyzed every birth in the United States from 2007 to 2011, according to the Seattle Times. Results showed that if a woman went from not smoking to smoking even one cigarette per day during pregnancy the risk of SIDS doubled. By the time she smoked a pack a day, the risk was tripled, the study found.

CNN reported that the new study supported the belief that smoking affects the levels of serotonin in a baby’s body, which is related to the activity of the nervous system. It is thought to have a link to the body’s ability to regulate breathing during sleep. “And maybe that leads to the infant stopping to breathe at night,” Dr. Cedric Rutland, a spokesman for the American Lung Association, told the news outlet.

The American Academy of Obstetrics and Gynecology estimated that 23 to 34 percent of SIDS cases could be attributed to smoking, as well as 5 to 7 percent of preterm infant deaths. According to the ACOG, “Smoking is one of the most important modifiable causes of poor pregnancy outcomes in the United States."

Not only is it now implicated in SIDS, it can also cause problems with the placenta, preterm birth, and birth defects like a cleft lip or palate, according to the CDC. And in February, a study published in Pediatrics concluded that children born to women who smoked during pregnancy were also more likely to develop attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, as Fortune reported.

The overall message of all the research is pretty clear: reducing the number of cigarettes smoked or quitting altogether is critical to decreasing health risks during and after pregnancy. And the sooner it’s done, the better.

If you need help quitting, contact the CDC's help line at 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) or check out the agency's list of resources for quitting. Baby & Me Tobacco Free — which works with an evidence-based system that offers diaper vouchers for up to 12 months postpartum for women who test tobacco-free — is also a nonprofit working to help women quit.