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Can Smoking While Pregnant Make Babies Autistic?

by Sara Ipatenco, studioD

Many parents panic when they hear the word autism. The disorder receives a great deal of media attention, particularly when celebrities admit to having a child on the autism spectrum. Many things have been blamed for autism, and smoking is one of culprits. While smoking during pregnancy doesn't automatically mean your baby will have autism, a small link has been found between the two, which is worth considering if you're pregnant or plan on becoming pregnant and you also smoke cigarettes.


Children with autism have problems with the way their brains work to receive and process information, and the disorder affects one in every 88 children. This often means that a child with autism has language delays and has a hard time communicating, too. Children with autism can have trouble making eye contact and might not be interested in engaging with the world around them. Autism can cause mild behavior changes or it can be severe enough that a child doesn't learn to speak, and this range of autism is called the spectrum. Signs of autism are usually noticed by age 2 or 3, and the earlier a child receives treatment, the less severe his symptoms are likely to be.

Smoking and Autism

Even if you smoke heavily while pregnant, there's nothing saying that your baby will definitely be born with autism. However, a 2012 article published in Environmental Health Perspectives reports that there might be a link between smoking and high-functioning autism. High-functioning autism is a milder form of the disorder, and many children on that end of the spectrum can communicate and attend school without problems. The article notes that about 11 percent of children with high-functioning autism were exposed to cigarettes in-utero. The study can't prove that smoking causes autism, but a small link was discovered, which means that the issue warrants further study to determine if a definite link does, in fact, exist.

Additional Causes

The causes of autism aren't fully understood, but doctors believe that genes and environmental factors might play a role. Many things, such as vaccinations, have been blamed for autism, but most of them have turned out to be false claims. Most cases of autism don't have a definite cause. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics' HealthyChildren.org, genetics seems to be one of the most promising avenues of study because past research suggests a link between genes and autism disorders. That doesn't mean, however, that all cases of autism are because of genetics. Environmental factors are thought to cause some cases of autism, but research done as of 2013 hasn't found any definitive links between specific environmental factors and autism diagnoses.

Additional Considerations

Autism isn't the only thing to consider if you smoke while you're pregnant. Just because smoking hasn't been definitively linked to autism doesn't mean you have a free pass to light up while you're pregnant. Smoking while pregnant has been shown to cause delayed growth, low birth weight and premature delivery, according to the American Pregnancy Association. Exposure to cigarette smoke can also cause long-term problems for your baby after she's born, too, including learning delays, lung problems and growth disorders.

About the Author

Sara Ipatenco has taught writing, health and nutrition. She started writing in 2007 and has been published in Teaching Tolerance magazine. Ipatenco holds a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in education, both from the University of Denver.

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