What to Know About Secondhand Smoke and Your Baby

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on June 06, 2022
5 min read

In addition to killing chronic smokers, secondhand smoke kills tens of thousands of nonsmoking adults in the U.S. each year. Secondhand smoke can cause heart disease and other health problems in adults but can also affect the health of children — especially babies. Luckily, certain things can be done to help protect your young one. Read on to learn about the symptoms of secondhand smoke and how to protect your baby from secondhand smoke.

Secondhand smoke is the smoke that comes from burning tobacco in cigarettes, pipes, and cigars — or the smoke exhaled by smokers — in an open setting. Tobacco smoke contains up to 7,000 chemicals. Of these, over 70 are known to be hazardous to human health. Anytime children or adults inhale secondhand smoke, their bodies are exposed to these chemicals.

In adults, secondhand smoke causes both lung and cardiovascular issues. Exposure to secondhand smoke in your workplace can increase your risk of developing heart disease by 30%. It also increases the risk of stroke, with over 8,000 stroke deaths occurring annually due to secondhand smoke. It interferes with the normal functions of the blood, heart, and vascular system. Of course, it also greatly increases your risk of lung diseases, like lung cancer.

When pregnant people smoke before giving birth, they increase their child's risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in their first year of life. The same chemicals that a pregnant person is exposed to via secondhand smoke can also have negative impacts on their fetus. In addition to SIDS, secondhand smoke exposure during pregnancy can have the following consequences for fetuses and newborns:

Clinical research has shown that newborns exposed to secondhand smoke can develop severe health problems. These can include:

  • Breathing problems
  • Bad colds
  • Respiratory issues
  • Delayed development, both physically and mentally 

The chemicals found in secondhand smoke can affect the brain and interfere with the way infants regulate their breathing. They may get sick more often, and their lungs grow less than other children who avoid secondhand smoke exposure. Wheezing and coughing are more common post-exposure, as are pneumonia and bronchitis. Similar to fetuses exposed to tobacco smoke through their parents, infants exposed to secondhand smoke are also at a higher risk of SIDS.

Children of adults who smoke tend to have more frequent and severe asthma attacks, which can put them in danger. They also have more frequent tooth decay and ear infections, as fluid is more likely to accumulate in their ears. These ear infections could require surgical care to place tubes in the ear for drainage. Children exposed to secondhand smoke also have more: 

  • Headaches
  • Sore throats
  • Hoarseness
  • Eye irritation

Children are more likely to start smoking if they're exposed to their parents' secondhand smoke, and babies exposed are at risk of similar health problems as those faced by adults. For example, children exposed to secondhand smoke may eventually experience:

  • Delays in lung development
  • Heart disease
  • Lung cancer
  • Cataracts

Both infants and adults can be exposed to secondhand smoke in several places, including:

  • Daycare or school
  • A babysitter's home or other smoker's house
  • In vehicles
  • Shopping centers
  • Restaurants
  • Playgrounds

Even if you are not a smoker or maintain a smoke-free home, your child can still be exposed outside of the home, in places like these.

Some simple things can be done to reduce the chances of secondhand smoke exposure for your baby.

  • Create a smoke-free home. Don't smoke inside of your home or near your baby. This includes both indoor and outdoor settings. Creating a smoke-free home from one that was once a smoker's house should include removing ashtrays. Remember that airflow through your home can potentially cause smoke in other rooms to lead to exposure.
  • Don't smoke in your car. Until you stop smoking completely, avoid smoking in your vehicle, and don't allow others to smoke in your car, even if they roll down their windows. Opening a window does not fully clear the air and can allow smoke to blow into the back seat, which is where your baby will be secured in a car seat.
  • Choose a babysitter that doesn't smoke. Regardless of where your babysitter smokes, your baby can potentially be exposed. 
  • Don't bring your baby to places that allow smoking. This is true even if there is no one actively smoking. If a public area allows smoking, try finding another. No-smoking sections don't always protect from secondhand smoke. Chemicals that are found in smoke can remain on surfaces days after smoking, and proximity to these can expose your family.
  • Choose smoke-free schools and childcare centers. If you can't find a convenient and smoke-free daycare, encourage a convenient facility to go smoke-free. It may involve some research, but there may be incentives for a business to make the switch. Plus, a smoke-free environment is more healthy for everyone.

If you are planning to have a baby, quitting smoking before you become pregnant will benefit both you and your baby. You should also ask the other smokers in your home to stop smoking indoors and near open windows and doors before you bring your baby home.

Quitting smoking is a significant challenge for most people. Motivation is key to breaking the habit. Try taping a picture of your baby to your pack of cigarettes to encourage yourself to remain smoke-free. 

A smoking cessation class can provide the support and necessary skills you need to stay committed to avoiding tobacco. It can especially help to be around others in a similar situation. If your family members commit to quitting too, you can motivate each other and hold each other accountable.

Sometimes a little more help is needed. Speaking with a doctor about smoking cessation is a good idea.  Medicines and counseling can help you successfully kick the habit for good. Sometimes people have to try more than once before they quit for good, so if you slip up, try again. Your baby's health is reason enough for stopping.