Health Library

Clearing the Air for Your Baby

Image for new baby article Your baby’s body is more active than most adult bodies. Not only does your baby’s body need to support basic life functions, but it is still going through rapid growth and development. 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 the things needed for healthy development. One of the most important things is oxygen.

The lungs pull oxygen from the air and into the blood. With healthy lungs and clear air, we can take in a lot of oxygen with every breath. But when the lungs are infected or damaged or the air is contaminated, the amount of oxygen available is limited. Secondhand smoke is one of the worst culprits for bad air and damaged lungs.

Secondhand smoke is a combination of smoke exhaled from a smoker and the smoke from a burning tip of a cigarette, cigar, or pipe. It is made up hundreds of hazardous chemicals. These chemicals irritate the lining of the lungs, cause damage to tissue, and alter lung functions.

Tiny Lungs, Smoky Air

Secondhand smoke is harmful for everybody, but is more destructive on the developing lungs and body of a baby. Also, babies inhale more smoke because they breathe at faster rates than adults. As adults, we are able to move away if the air is irritating. Babies of course, are not able to move away from smoky areas on their own.

Even small amounts of secondhand smoke can hamper breathing by affecting different parts of your baby’s lungs:

  • Bronchioles and bronchi—tubes that allow oxygen to travel from the mouth into the lungs
    • The chemicals in the smoke can cause irritation, swelling, and inflammation in these tubes.
    • This can greatly reduce the size of the path for air, much like breathing through a straw.
  • Alveoli—tiny air sacs found deeper in the lungs where gas exchange occurs
    • Alveoli continue to develop after birth to help with oxygen exchange in the lungs.
    • Secondhand smoke exposure affects alveoli development.
    • Reducing the amount of oxygen to the body increases the risk of infection.
  • Surfactant—fluid that lines the inside of the lungs, making it easier for the lungs to expand and pass oxygen to the blood
    • Surfactant continues to be produced after birth to keep the lungs expanded.
    • Exposing your baby to secondhand smoke interferes with this development, and may prevent your baby’s lungs from making the right amount of surfactant.
    • Low amounts can affect the ability for your baby’s lungs to expand and contract properly.

For babies who already have lung problems, these effects can be even more dramatic. This can include babies recovering from previous infections or premature babies with 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

When your baby’s lungs are affected by secondhand smoke, it can put your baby at a higher risk for:

  • Coughing, wheezing, and increased phlegm production
  • Breathlessness
  • Colds and other viral illnesses
  • Lower lung infections like pneumonia and acute bronchitis

If your baby has asthma, secondhand smoke will increase the number and severity of asthma attacks. Exposure to secondhand smoke is linked to nearly half of childhood asthma cases.

Babies who are sick more often have additional doctor visits and possibly, hospitalizations. Repeated or severe illnesses can also lead to scarring in the lungs. For babies, the scarring can slow or halt lung development. Lung damage can also cause extra stress and damage to the heart.

Clear the Air

Take it OutsideOne More Reason to Quit

The chemicals in secondhand smoke are so tiny that they cannot be effectively cleaned out with filters. These chemicals easily travel through a house helped by fans, ventilation, heat systems, and air conditioning. Opening a window does very little to decrease the amount of smoke exposure. But there are ways to make sure that secondhand smoke does not harm your baby.

The only way to effectively reduce your baby’s exposure to secondhand smoke is to completely eliminate smoking inside the house and car. Choose a designated 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, kindly ask that they do so in the designated 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 immediately after smoking increases the risks of secondhand smoke exposure, even after smoking outdoors. Although quitting is the ideal solution, changing clothing after smoking outdoors may help decrease exposure.

The car is a small, contained space. Smoking in the car can cause a high level of exposure for your baby, even if you only smoke in the car when your baby is not there. Remember that opening the windows does not effectively reduce smoke exposure. In many cases, it simply blows the smoke (and sometimes ashes) back to the baby. If you must smoke while in a car, then have a plan. For example, on long trips plan safe areas where you can stop to smoke outside of the car. Keep in mind that smoke and particles settle in the car and can remain in the air even if you are not smoking.

Also 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.

If you smoke, quitting would benefit your entire family. Quitting can also help your baby if the mom smokes and breastfeeds. Babies can be exposed to smoke chemicals through breast milk. This can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea in some babies, which may interfere with growth.

Knowing the ways that smoking can harm your baby may still not make it easy to quit. Like many habits, it may take more than one try. There are several programs and tools to help you take the necessary steps. Many may be available for free or at a discounted rate. Talk with your doctor about options that may work best for you.

Whether or not you quit smoking, it is important not to expose your baby to secondhand smoke. Clear the air for your baby. Doing so will help your baby develop properly, significantly decrease the number of colds and infections, and avoid serious lung issues. A healthy baby also tends to be a happy baby, and that is good for everyone.


American Lung Association

Smoke Free

Canadian Resources

Canadian Lung Association

Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada


Asthma and children fact sheet. American Lung Association website. Available at: Updated February 2017. Accessed April 11, 2017.

Chapter 6. Respiratory effects in children from exposure to secondhand smoke. The health consequences of involuntary exposure to tobacco smoke: a report of the Surgeon General. United States Department of Health and Human Services website. Available at: Accessed April 11, 2017.

Health effects of secondhand smoke. American Lung Association website: Available at: Accessed April 11, 2017.

Initial newborn assessment. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated March 9, 2017. Accessed April 11, 2017.

Matt GET, Quintana PJE, et al. Households contaminated by environmental tobacco smoke: sources of infant exposures. Tobacco Control. 2004;13(1):29-37.

Risk factors for asthma. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated October 17, 2016. Accessed April 11, 2017.

Secondhand tobacco smoke and smoke-free homes. US Environmental Protection Agency website. Available at: Accessed April 11, 2017.

Tobacco use. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: Updated October 29, 2013. Accessed April 11, 2017.

Villamagna D. Smoking and breastfeeding. From: LEAVEN, Vol. 40 No. 4, August-September 2004. La Leche League International website. Available at: Accessed April 11, 2017.

5/21/2010 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance Yolton K, Xu Y, et al. Associations between secondhand smoke exposure and sleep patterns in children. Pediatrics. 2010;125(2):e261-e268.