Researchers in the Netherlands have documented another reason why women wishing to have children should stop smoking before they become pregnant. In addition to being linked to various birth defects, premature birth, underdeveloped lungs, low birth weight and many other problems, smoking during pregnancy has been shown to damage the baby’s blood vessels. According to www.nlm.nih.gov, this defect of thicker blood vessel walls is linked to cardiovascular disease and early atherosclerosis in adults. In addition to this, the children of smoking mothers had a 15 percent lower arterial distensibility (ability of the artery to stretch during the pumping of blood), according to www.tobacco.org.
One out of 33 babies born in the United States has some kind of birth defect, according to www.nlm.nih.gov, and while two-thirds of these defects are unknown, many common birth defects could be prevented by simply not smoking when pregnant.
Preterm babies born before 32 weeks gestation — also linked to smoking during pregnancy — are at very high risk for neurological problems, hemorrhage, infection and respiratory and digestive problems, according to www.fda.gov. Death in the first few days of life is not uncommon for these infants. Preterm babies often suffer lifelong consequences that may include cerebral palsy, mental retardation, chronic lung disease, blindness and hearing loss. Many children born prematurely and who appear physically fit often have problems in the form of delayed development and learning problems in school.
A normal pregnancy should last about 40 weeks, which gives the baby the best chance to be healthy. The earlier in pregnancy a baby is born, the more health problems and disabilities the child is likely to have.
Of the 4 million infants born annually in the United States, approximately 12.8 percent will be born prematurely. Those children are at increased risk for birth defects and complications such as mental retardation, learning and behavioral problems, cerebral palsy, lung problems and even death, according to www.marchofdimes.com. While premature babies have health problems due mainly to undeveloped organs and low birth weight, babies with birth defects have abnormalities in the structure, function or metabolism process although both conditions may occur in one baby.
In addition to being linked to smoking during pregnancy, birth defects may be caused by genetic and/or environmental factors, and several thousand different types of birth defects have been identified. The causes of 60 to 70 percent of them, however, are currently unknown.
The March of Dimes recommends the following preventive steps to help reduce the risk of birth defects:
• Schedule a pre-pregnancy visit with your health-care provider. This visit will give you the opportunity to provide information about your and the potential father’s family history, thus identifying risk factors for birth defects or inherited genetic conditions or showing areas you need to check on.
• Women wishing to become pregnant should take a daily multivitamin containing folic acid. According to pregnancy.about.com, taking 400 micrograms of this B-vitamin prior to and in the early weeks of pregnancy reduces the risk of having a baby with certain birth defects of the brain and spine (such as spina bifida). Women with a history of having a child with one of these birth defects should consult their physicians prior to becoming pregnant.
• Pregnant or women wishing to become pregnancy should not use alcohol, tobacco or street drugs; nor should they take prescriptions, over-the-counter or herbal medications without first consulting their health-care provider.
• Some birth defects can be diagnosed before birth by using prenatal tests, and some defects can even be treated in the womb before birth either by medications, blood transfusions or prenatal surgery.
• Couples with a family history of birth defects or who have had a baby with a birth defect should consult a genetic counselor to help them understand the cause of the defect and the odds of the birth defect occurring in the pregnancy.
Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.