Grimacing, with hands covering the face – this is what it looks like when a fetus is exposed to cigarette smoke. Researchers say tiny facial movements captured on 4D ultrasound scans of unborn babies are powerful new evidence of the harmful effects of smoking during pregnancy.
Maternal smoking is already known to increase the risk of premature birth, miscarriage, respiratory problems and SIDS. It may even change a baby’s DNA. It’s hoped these images may now be used to help pregnant mums kick the habit.
The top line of scans in the image at the top of this post shows a fetus exposed to cigarette smoke. The bottom line is the baby of a non-smoker.
A study by Lancaster and Durham universities shows babies whose mothers smoke show a “significantly higher rate” of mouth movements than the normal declining rate of movements expected in a fetus during pregnancy. Fetuses usually move their mouths and touch themselves less as they gain more control the closer they get to birth, The Telegraph reports.
Lead author Dr Nadja Reissland, of Durham University, says: “Fetal facial movement patterns differ significantly between fetuses of mothers who smoked compared to those of mothers who didn’t smoke.”
The study suggests the central nervous system, which controls movements, develops differently and more slowly in babies of smokers than in those of non-smokers. Previous studies have reported a delay in speech processing abilities in infants exposed to smoking during pregnancy, the researchers say.
“Technology means we can now see what was previously hidden, revealing how smoking affects the development of the fetus in ways we did not realise,” Lancaster University Professor Brian Francis says. “This is yet further evidence of the negative effects of smoking in pregnancy.”
The team studied 80 4D ultrasounds of 20 unborn babies, looking for subtle mouth and touch movements. Four of the babies belonged to mums who smoked an average of 14 cigarettes a day. All babies were born healthy.
The research – published in the journal Acta Paediatrica – also shows that maternal stress and depression have a significant impact on fetal movements, but the increase in mouth and touch movements is even higher in babies whose mothers smoke.
Dr Reissland tells the Telegraph that videos of the difference in pre-birth development could help mothers give up smoking. But she doesn’t want nicotine-addicted mothers demonised, and has called for more support to help them give up.
But the researchers stress that larger studies are needed, and should also look into smoking among fathers.
(Image via Dr Nadja Reissland, Durham University)