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Why You Should Give Up Nicotine — For You and Your Baby

Nicotine smoke

It seems that everywhere you go, you encounter smoke. It might be from traditional cigarette smoke or the often-sweet smelling smoke from vaping. It’s not surprising. An estimated 34.3 million adults in the US smoke cigarettes and more than 9 million adults are regularly vaping. More than 16 million Americans are living with a disease caused by smoking. Risks to your health are very real, but what about the harmful effects of nicotine on your breastfed baby? Here are some reasons why you should give up nicotine.

Nicotine is present, in cigarettes and vaporizers and your milk

Unquestionably, nicotine passes through the mother’s milk, thereby exposing the breastfed infant.

Traditional cigarettes, vaporizers, e-cigarettes, and similar devices all contain nicotine. And, about 10-11% of breastfeeding mothers are vaping. Many believe that vaping is less harmful than smoking. Some turn to vaping or e-cigarettes to stop smoking.

Yes, breastfeeding mothers can vape and breastfeed. But, according to the Centers for Disease Control, little is known about the effects of maternal e-cigarette use on the infant’s health. Hence, it’s best to give up nicotine altogether.  

Nicotine is highly addictive

Considering that you can purchase cigarettes at gas stations and grocery stores, you might be surprised to hear that nicotine is just as addictive as heroin, according to the Council on Chemical Abuse. It’s difficult to give up nicotine because it’s highly addictive. Nicotine causes a surge of endorphins which creates a feeling of short-lived euphoria.

Nicotine has adverse effects on lactation, milk, and milk-ejection

I recently interviewed Dr. Lori Feldman-Winter, MD, MPH, and she emphasized, “Nicotine impairs lactation by disrupting hormones responsible for lactation and milk transfer resulting in less milk for the baby.”

Nicotine is a highly lipophilic (“fat-loving”) substance. So of course, it clings to human milk, which has a fairly substantial fat component. Further, we know that milk of mothers who smoke has lower levels of lipids, which will adversely affect the breastfed infant’s weight gain. We also know that it crosses the blood brain barrier, and accumulates in the baby’s brain.     

Other chemicals in cigarettes and vaporizers are worrisome

There are over 600 ingredients in cigarettes, including acetone (commonly found in nail polish remover) and arsenic (used in rat poison). At least 69 of those chemicals are known to cause cancer.

E-cigarettes and vaporizers heat liquids to vapor. While they do not use tobacco and are sometimes called smokeless, they may contain flavorings and other additives that are inhaled through aerosol. The effect of many of these chemicals is unknown.

Nicotine impacts infant behavior and well-being

Breastfed infants who are exposed to nicotine can have a variety of issues: restlessness, altered sleep patterns, diarrhea and vomiting, and a rapid heartbeat. These effects are especially compelling reasons to give up nicotine.

There’s some evidence that the milk tastes different, too. That, along with the fact that smoking mothers usually have a lower volume of milk, leads to yet another problem: slow weight gain.     

The baby gets a double whammy: secondhand smoke

If you continue to smoke, it’s not just about the nicotine passing through your milk. It’s also about the baby’s exposure to secondhand smoke.

Prenatally, cigarette smoking increases the likelihood of fetal loss, low birthweight, and other problems. In the breastfed infant, secondhand smoke increases the risk for respiratory ailments, neurobehavioral problems, middle ear infection, sudden infant death syndrome, and depression of autonomic cardiovascular control.

You have the power: believe you can give up nicotine

Each year about 1.3 million smokers quit. It can be done! The first step, though, is that you must make the decision to quit. It all starts with decision-making and choices.

If you choose not to give up nicotine, it’s important to continue breastfeeding, because your milk offers some protection from the above-listed problems. There are some other measures you can take to provide at least some protection for your baby:

  • Smoke outside or in a well-ventilated area
  • Do not smoke in enclosed areas, like your home or vehicle
  • Do not smoke around your baby
  • Wash/change clothes or other fabrics before coming in contact with your baby
  • Wash your hands after smoking

So, I repeat. It’s okay to continue breastfeeding, and reducing your intake of nicotine is a good first step. But the best idea is to give up nicotine entirely. Stay tuned for an upcoming post where I’ll talk about safe, effective ways for mothers to use nicotine replacement therapy as a strategy to give up nicotine.

Did you give up nicotine while breastfeeding? Share your experiences in the comments below!

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