Ask an Expert: Smoking and fatherhood

Q. “My wife and I are talking about conceiving a baby. I have been using marijuana and smoking cigarettes for about ten years. My wife has never smoked anything. Before we do this, I want to know if I should quit for a month or so to make sure that our children won’t have birth defects or problems later in life. My wife seems to think that what I do doesn’t matter, and that it’s only what she does that affects the baby. I’m not so sure. I want to do the right thing.”

Answer from Angela Keating, M.D., board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist with Providence Medical Group Columbia Women’s Clinic:

We commend you for wanting to do the right thing, and in that spirit, we encourage you to give up smoking not for one month, but for good. Your wife is incorrect in thinking that what you do doesn’t matter. It matters a great deal.

In terms of the risk of birth defects, which you asked about, a few studies suggest that a father’s cigarette smoking increases the risk of birth defects; however, the data are not clear. What is clear is that smoking has a significant, negative effect on the health of a very important person in your children’s life: their father. In addition, the smoke that you exhale and the secondhand smoke that comes from your cigarettes exposes your wife and children to all of the same risks that you expose yourself to when you smoke.

Here are three important reasons to give up cigarettes and marijuana for good, before you try to become a father:

  1. Smoking cigarettes and/or marijuana may reduce your ability to become a father. Studies show that cigarette smoking reduces sperm count and motility and causes abnormalities in sperm shape and function. Smoking marijuana also reduces sperm count and impairs the ability of sperm to reach and fertilize an egg. You and your wife might have better luck conceiving a child if you don’t smoke.
  2. Exposure to your secondhand smoke affects your developing baby. According to a recent study, exposing a pregnant woman to secondhand cigarette smoke may cause just as much harm to a fetus as if the mother were inhaling directly from a cigarette herself.
  3. Smoking around your children can affect their health throughout their lives. Infants born to parents who smoke have a higher risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Children of smokers also have higher incidences of asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, middle ear infections and other health problems. In addition, children whose parents smoke cigarettes or marijuana are much more likely to become cigarette smokers or marijuana users themselves. Read more.

For all of these reasons, in addition to protecting your own health and the health of your wife, it would be wise to give up smoking a few months before you try to conceive. We recommend talking to your doctor about programs that can help you quit for good.

January 2008

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