Image: 4D scans showing a sequence of movements displayed by two fetuses at 32 weeks gestation. The image shows fetal movements in a fetus whose mother is a smoker (top) and a fetus whose mother is a non-smoker (below)

We’ve all heard about the harmful effects that smoking can have on unborn babies, but now new research may actually show us how babies handle cigarettes. Researchers at Lancaster and Durham Universities observed 4D ultrasound scans, and found that fetuses of mothers who smoked while pregnant had significantly higher rates of mouth movements than the normal movements expected in a healthy pregnancy. This longitudinal pilot-study looked at 20 moms (16 non-smoking, 4 smoking (who smoked an average of 14 cigarettes per day). Each mom and her baby were scanned four times from 24-36 weeks gestation and two types of fine grained movements were coded offline and analyzed. The researchers suggest that the extra facial moments may occur because the fetal central nervous system did not develop at the same rate as say, the nervous system of a baby of a non-smoker. The study was very small but was still telling as you can see from the striking image above. The researchers note that, “a larger study is needed to confirm these results and to investigate specific effects, including the interaction of maternal stress and smoking.” The researchers also want to look at how a father who smokes affects the fetus as well. This study is published in the journal Acta Paediatrica.

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+ Ultrasound observations of subtle movements: a pilot study comparing fetuses of smoking and non-smoking mothers

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Lead image courtesy Dr. Nadja Reissland, Durham University