What helps women to quit smoking while pregnant?

In this blog for women who want to quit smoking in pregnancy, Cochrane authors Jonathan Livingstone-Banks and Catherine Chamberlain look at the evidence on what can help. This blog is part of our special series ‘Maternity Matters’. This blog is part of a series called ‘Maternity Matters’, you can read the rest here.

Quitting smoking is really hard, and pregnancy comes with its own set of unique challenges. It’s no surprise then that quitting while pregnant can be very difficult, and even among women who manage it, many start to smoke again shortly after giving birth.

Smoking at any time is dangerous – tobacco kills more than half its users and is responsible for over 8 million deaths worldwide each year (WHO 2019). But tobacco smoking during or after pregnancy is particularly harmful for both mother and baby. Tobacco smoking in pregnancy remains the most serious potentially preventable cause of serious complications in pregnancy (Mund 2013), including low birthweight (Chamberlain 2017), preterm birth (Baba 2012), stillbirth (Marufu 2015) and neonatal death (Kallen 2001). The harmful compounds in cigarettes can restrict the supply of oxygen and other essential nutrients, affecting foetal growth (Crawford 2008) and the development of organs (Morales‐Suarez‐Varela 2006) including the lungs (Maritz 2008) and brain (Herrmann 2008; Blood‐Siegfried 2010). This can lead to life-long health impacts (Gluckman 2008).

That being said, women are more likely to stop smoking when they are pregnant than at any other time. Almost half of all women who smoke before pregnancy ‘spontaneously quit’ before their first antenatal visit (Hotham 2008).  But we know it is harder for women to quit when pregnant if they are also dealing with other challenges (like not having enough money to live on, not having enough support or having a partner who smokes).

Quitting smoking is always a great idea, and women looking to quit now that they’re pregnant deserve the best support. So what are the options for pregnant women who want to quit? And what works?

Psychological and other ‘non-drug’ support for quitting

A huge Cochrane Review of over a hundred studies looked at the kinds of psychological and social support that aim to help pregnant women quit. They found that, based on 30 studies of over twelve thousand pregnant women, those who receive stop-smoking counselling are 40% more likely to quit than women who just received usual care, and that strategies like health education and feedback (e.g. seeing results on a ‘smokalyzer’, a devise that detects carbon monoxide from smoking on your breath) probably help, too (although this is based on fewer studies and people).  Counselling can include support getting motivated to quit and developing strategies to cope with smoking urges, including relaxation and diversionary activities.

Women who receive incentives to quit smoking, such as money or vouchers, are probably more than twice as likely to be not smoking six months after giving birth.

They also found that, based on four studies of 212 people, women who receive incentives (or rewards) to quit such as money or vouchers are probably more than twice as likely to be not smoking 6 months after they gave birth. This was backed up last month, when a recent Cochrane Review of incentives for smoking cessation found the same result, based on nine studies of 2273 pregnant women.

Another Cochrane Review of relapse prevention interventions didn’t find a benefit of giving specific relapse-prevention support to women who’d already quit, either at the end of pregnancy (eight studies, 1523 women) or at follow‐up after they’d given birth (fifteen studies, 4606 women).

Using medication to quit

Evidence from a Cochrane Review of stop-smoking medications found some pretty confusing results. They reported that women who take nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) are 40% more likely to not be smoking during late pregnancy. However, when only the higher-quality, placebo-controlled trials were analysed, NRT was found to be no more effective than a placebo. Review authors also noted that the majority of women in the trials didn’t take all of the NRT they were given.

There wasn’t enough evidence to conclude whether NRT has a good or bad effect on birth outcomes, but one trial followed up infants after birth and reported that infants of women randomised to NRT were more likely to have healthy development (Cooper 2014).

This review is currently being updated with the latest evidence, and a new Cochrane Review currently in progress is investigating the qualitative evidence about the factors that influence the uptake and use of NRT and e-cigarettes by pregnant women who smoke, so hopefully we’ll be able to get a clearer picture soon.

A new Cochrane Review in progress is exploring what influences the uptake and use of NRT and e-cigarettes by pregnant women.

In summary

Quitting smoking when pregnant is the best thing you can possibly do for your own health and your baby’s health.  There are many types of support available, and studies suggest that:

  • Receiving counselling support and incentives or rewards for quitting are most likely to help
  • Education and getting feedback via a smokalyzer or other similar device probably help
  • NRT may help and is not likely to be harmful for the baby.

Join in the conversation on Twitter with @CochraneUK @CochraneTAG @DrCChamberlain #MaternityMatters or leave a comment on the blog.

Catherine Chamberlain

Catherine Chamberlain is an Australian National Health and Medical Research Council Career Development Fellow and Associate Professor at the Judith Lumley Centre, La Trobe University. Catherine is a Registered Midwife and Public Health researcher whose research aims to improve health equity during the perinatal period, and includes a focus on smoking, diabetes and complex trauma.

References may be found here.

Declaration of interest: Jonathan Livingston-Banks – I am an employee of the University of Oxford and managing editor of the Cochrane Tobacco Addiction Group. My salary is funded by the NIHR. I am an author of some of the reviews cited in this blog. 

Catherine Chamberlain is an author of some of the reviews cited in this blog.


Jonathan Livingstone-Banks

About Jonathan Livingstone-Banks

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Jonathan Livingstone-Banks is managing editor of the Cochrane Tobacco Addiction Group and a research fellow at the University of Oxford.

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