Clearing the Air for Your Baby

Image for new baby article Your baby’s body is more active than most adult bodies. Organs like the brain, heart, and lungs are changing in ways that will affect the rest of your baby’s life. So, it is important for your baby to get all the things needed for healthy growth. Oxygen is one of the most important things.

The lungs pull oxygen from the air. It can then pass into the blood through thin sacs deep in the lungs. Sick lungs and bad air can make it hard for your baby to get enough oxygen. Secondhand smoke is one of top reasons for lung problems in babies.

Secondhand smoke is a mix of smoke from a smoker and the smoke from a burning tip of a cigarette, cigar, or pipe. It is made up hundreds of toxic chemicals. These chemicals damage the lining of the lungs and change how they work. These effects can be worse in babies.

Tiny Lungs, Smoky Air

Secondhand smoke is harmful for everybody, but is harder on the growing lungs of a baby. As adults, we are able to move away if the air is bad. Babies of course, are not able to move away from smoky areas on their own. Since babies breathe at a faster rate than adults, they also draw in more smoke.

Secondhand smoke can affect many areas of a baby’s airway and lungs:

  • Tubes that carry oxygen from the mouth into the lungs :
    • Cigarette smoke can cause irritation, swelling, and inflammation.
    • Swelling shrinks space for air to move through. It can make it like breathing through a straw.
  • Tiny air sacs found deeper in the lungs. This is where oxygen passes into the blood.
    • This area grows after birth. Secondhand smoke may change the way they grow.
    • Damage in these sacs make is harder to pass oxygen into the blood. It can also increase the risk of infections like pneumonia.
  • A fluid that lines the lungs, called surfactant. It coats the lining of the lungs and makes it easier for the lungs to open. It also help oxygen pass through the lungs and into the blood.
    • Secondhand smoke can make it hard for the body to make this fluid.
    • It can make it harder for the lungs to move air as it should.

These problems can be worse in babies who have any other lung problems. This can include babies recovering from infections or underdeveloped lungs. Secondhand smoke has also been linked to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and a higher chance of ear infections.

Sickness in the Smoke

Secondhand smoke can put your baby at a higher risk for:

  • Coughing, wheezing, and increased in coughed up fluid
  • Breathlessness
  • Colds and other viral illnesses
  • Lower lung infections like pneumonia and acute bronchitis
  • Asthma attacks—if asthma is present

Babies who are sick will need extra doctor visits. Some may need hospital stays. Repeated or severe illnesses can also lead to scarring in the lungs. Scarring can slow or stop lung development in babies. Lung damage can also cause extra stress and damage to the heart.

Clear the Air

The best option is to have no smoke around your baby at all. However, this may be unlikely. There are steps to help lower the amount of smoke your baby breathes in.

The chemicals in secondhand smoke are tiny. Filters cannot remove them well. These chemicals can also easily travel through a house. Fans, ventilation, heat systems, and air conditioning all help to spread them around. Opening a window does very little to decrease the amount of smoke exposure. Steps that are more effective include:

Take it Outside

Stop all smoking inside the house and car. It is the most effective way to reduce your baby's exposure to secondhand smoke. Choose an area to smoke that is not in your house. Once you have chosen one, try to stick to it when you smoke—even in poor weather. It is just as important to prevent visitors from smoking in your home. Most will understand your concerns about your baby’s health. If your visitors want to smoke, ask that they do so in the smoking area. Another idea is to meet them somewhere other than your house.

It is also important to note that smoke and particles settle on hair and clothing. Holding young babies after smoking can still pass harmful things, even after smoking outdoors. Changing clothing after smoking outdoors may help decrease this exposure.

Smoking in the car can cause a high level of exposure for your baby. This can happen even if you only smoke in the car when your baby is not there. Chemical stick to upholstery and car seat. Opening the window does not reduce smoke exposure enough. In many cases, it simply blows the smoke back to the baby. If you must smoke on a car trip, then have a plan. For example, on long trips plan safe areas where you can stop. Step outside of the car to smoke.

Make sure that any other areas where your child spends a lot of time are smoke-free. This may include day care centers, schools, and activity centers.

One More Reason to Quit

Chemicals from smoking can be passed through breastmilk. This can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea in some babies. It may also interfere with growth.

There are several programs and tools to help you quit smoking. Talk to your doctor about which tools may be best if you are breastfeeding.

Whether or not you quit smoking, it is important not to lower the amount of secondhand smoke around your baby. Doing so will help your baby grow healthy, decrease illnesses and hopefully avoid serious lung issues. A healthy baby also tends to be a happy baby, and that is good for everyone.


American Lung Association


Canadian Lung Association
Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada


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Updated February 2017. Accessed November 14, 2019.
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Last reviewed April 2018 by James Cornell, MD
Last Updated: 11/14/2019

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