Using 4D ultrasound scans, researchers showed how unborn babies appeared to grimace in the womb when their mothers smoked cigarettes.
Dr. Nadja Reissland, part of the Science Faculty office and Department of Psychology at Durham University, United Kingdom, analyzed moving 4D scan images and recorded thousands of tiny movements in the womb. She monitored 20 mothers attending the James Cook University Hospital in Middleborough, four of whom smoked an average of 14 cigarettes a day.
After studying their scans at 24, 28, 32 and 36 weeks, she found that fetuses whose mothers smoked continued to show significantly higher rates of mouth movement and self-touching than those carried by non-smokers. Fetuses usually move their mouths and touch themselves less as they gain more control when they get closer to birth.
Resissland said, “Fetal facial movement patterns differ significantly between fetuses of mothers who smoked compared to those of mothers who didn’t smoke. Our findings concur with others that stress and depression have a significant impact on fetal movements, and need to be controlled for, but additionally these results point to the fact that nicotine exposure per se has an effect on fetal development over and above the effects of stress and depression.”
Reissland believes that the study shows that babies carried by smokers may have delayed development of the central nervous system. She now hopes to expand the pilot study to a bigger sample.
“A larger study is needed to confirm these results and to investigate specific effects, including the interaction of maternal stress and smoking,” added Reissland.
Pregnant women have long been urged to give up cigarettes because it increases the risk of premature birth, respiratory problems and even cot death. Now researchers believe they can show the effects of smoking on babies in the womb by using the images from this study, to encourage mothers who are struggling to give up smoking.
The findings were published in the Acta Paediatrica journal.