The harmful effects of smoking in pregnancy on unborn babies may be seen in tiny movements in their faces using four dimensional (4D) ultrasound scans, research has found.
Pregnant women have long been urged to give up cigarettes as smoking heightens 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 – and use the images to encourage mothers struggling to give up.
Dr Nadja Reissland has studied moving 4D scan images and recorded thousands of tiny movements in the womb.
She monitored 20 mothers at the James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough, four of whom smoked an average of 14 cigarettes a day.
After studying scans at 24, 28, 32 and 36 weeks, she saw that foetuses whose mothers smoked showed significantly higher rates of mouth movement and self-touching than those carried by non-smokers. Foetuses move their mouths and touch themselves less as they gain more control of their movements the closer they get to birth.
The pilot study, which Dr Reissland hopes to expand with a bigger sample, indicated that babies carried by smokers may have delayed development of the central nervous system.
The research, conducted by Durham and Lancaster universities, is published in the journal Acta Paediatrica.
Dr Reissland, who is from Durham’s psychology department, said: “A larger study is needed to confirm these results and to investigate specific effects, including the interaction of maternal stress and smoking.”
She believed that videos of the difference in pre-birth development could help mothers give up smoking, but she was against demonising mothers and called for more support for them to give up.
Currently, 12 per cent of pregnant women in the UK smoke.
All the babies in her study were born healthy, and were of normal size and weight.
Dr Reissland, an expert in the study of foetal development, thanked the mothers who took part in her study, especially those who smoked.
“I’m really grateful, they did a good thing,” she said. “These are special people and they overcame the stigma to help others.”
Report co-author Professor Brian Francis, from Lancaster University, said: “Technology means we can now see what was previously hidden, revealing how smoking affects the development of the foetus in ways we did not realise. This is yet further evidence of the negative effects of smoking in pregnancy.”
One in five pregnant women in Scotland is a smoker, and smoking ten or more cigarettes a day during pregnancy has been proven to double the risk of stillbirth.
The risk of cot death increases seven-fold when the mother smokes more than 20 a day.
Last November, a scheme run by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde saw one in five pregnant smokers quit after being rewarded with financial incentives of up to £400.
Six hundred women took part in the pilot scheme, which cost £750,000, co-funded by the NHS and the Scottish Government, and the team behind the experiment have since applied for further funding to test the intervention strategy through NHS Lanarkshire.
During the trial, carried out on behalf of the UK Centre for Tobacco Control, participants were rewarded with £50 vouchers after booking their first face-to-face appointment.
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