Smoking Moms-to-Be May Bear Terrible Teens
THURSDAY, May 30 (HealthScoutNews) -- Pregnant women who smoke may give birth to kids who will turn into terrors in their teens.
A new study by psychiatric researchers at the University of Chicago says children born to pregnant mothers who smoke are three to four times more likely to be bullies, vandals and violent criminals.
Study co-author Lauren Wakschlag says it's not clear exactly how maternal smoking and adolescent antisocial behavior are connected.
"We still do not know whether the smoking is causing the problem or is associated with something else that's causing it," she says.
Wakschlag and her colleagues reviewed a number of studies about the effects of maternal smoking on children, and report their findings in the June issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
According to the report, between 1 percent and 16 percent of teens suffer from what psychologists call "conduct disorder," more commonly known as "antisocial behavior." The problem is more common among boys.
"They have patterns of violation of rules and social norms -- bullying, vandalism, physical cruelty and aggression, threatening, lying, stealing and forcible sexual behavior," Wakschlag says. "These are the kind of things that you might think of as delinquent."
Experts have long suspected a link between pregnant women who smoke and teens who are violent, Wakschlag says, "but everybody's pretty skeptical. They think [the causes] must be things that go along with mothers who smoke."
However, she found some studies have taken into account other explanations for the antisocial behavior among teens, such as low income. Even when researchers remove the possible influence of other factors, the link between smoking and antisocial behavior "doesn't go away," Wakschlag says.
She estimates pregnant mothers who smoke are three to four times more likely to produce an antisocial child. Women who smoke at least a half a pack a day are at special risk.
However, she cautions that smoking won't doom all pregnant women to bear difficult children. "Many babies who are exposed don't develop this," she says.
Researchers don't fully understand how maternal smoking affects the mental development of children. However, it appears that smoking during pregnancy affects the central nervous system of a fetus and may reduce a baby's ability to cope with stress, Wakschlag says.
It's very difficult for mental health workers to treat antisocial children, she adds, so it may be important to focus on prevention by reducing smoking among pregnant mothers.
That prospect worries Laury Oaks, an assistant professor of women's studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She has written about the pressures that women face to not smoke or drink during pregnancy.
"As we focus on these very negative anti-smoking messages, we run the risk of increasing women's stress and anxiety levels," she says. "There is a lot of pregnancy policing."
She says researchers should look back to see if risks truly exist.
"Throughout history, pregnant women were not told to stop drinking or smoking. Are there whole generations who have suffered the consequences of that or not?" she asks.