Is this really the way to stop women smoking in pregnancy?

Stark 4D scans seem to show a distressed baby vs a calm baby - due to the mother smoking. But do the pictures tell the full story?

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We all know that smoking during pregnancy is harmful to your baby. But is this the best way to get the message across?

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Pictures of 4D scans of unborn babies have been splashed across the media this week. The top set of pics shows a baby with its hands up by its head – the other shows a much more peaceful looking baby. The top pics are of an unborn baby of a woman who smokes, the bottom the baby of a non-smoker. 

They’re striking images – seemingly suggesting that an unborn baby of a smoking mum holds its hands to its face, almost as if it’s in distress. Indeed the Daily Telegraph ran the story with the headline “Unborn baby shown grimacing in womb as mother smokes”. But is this a fair interpretation?

So what’s the story?

New research from Durham and Lancaster Universities has used 4D scanning to show how smoking during pregnancy may affect the development of an unborn baby.

Researchers studied 80 4D ultrasound scans of 20 unborn babies who were between 26-34 weeks old. The scans were taken at 4 week intervals. Four of the mothers smoked an average of 14 cigarettes a day, and 16 of the mothers did not smoke at all.

There’s plenty of existing research into the damaging effects of smoking cigarettes in pregnancy. But what’s new about this study, say the researchers, is that the ultrasound images show how a baby’s central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) may be affected by cigarette smoke.

What did the scans show?

The scans showed that the 4 babies with smoking mothers had a significantly higher rate of mouth movements than those with mothers who didn’t smoke. 

Babies whose mothers smoked also tended to touch their faces more often, but the results were not as clear cut, and the scientists couldn’t rule out chance. 

Why is this important?

Previous research has shown that while in the womb, babies make lots of tiny movements, including touching their faces and moving their mouths. However, as a baby’s central nervous system develops, these movements usually slow down. 

In the scans from smoking mothers, these movements slowed by 1.5% a week. In the non-smoking mums, they slowed by 3%. This, the researchers suggested, may signify that smoking delays development of the central nervous system. 

So how big was the survey?

Very small. The researchers tested 20 pregnant women, and only 4 of them smoked – quite heavily.

The researchers acknowlege that more work is needed to prove that the results are significant. The lead author of the study Dr Nadja Reissland said, “A larger study is needed to confirm these results and to investigate specific effects…”.

Indeed, all the babies from the study were born healthy, and there were no significant differences recorded between the babies born to smokers and non-smokers. However, no follow-up work has been done to see if any differences have developed since. 

So what about the pictures? 

The way the pictures have been used makes the story much more emotive. Yet the researchers have not suggested that the babies of smoking mothers were in distress or were ‘grimacing’. 

It’s essential that all pregnant women know about the harm that smoking causes. According to the NHS, every cigarette smoked contains more than 4,000 chemicals that can harm an unborn baby.

But these pictures feel like a very crude way of telling that message.

What do you think? Do you think we need images like this? Tell us below…

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