Infants and the Word of Wisdom

“Infants and the Word of Wisdom,” Ensign, Apr. 1977, 54

Infants and the Word of Wisdom

What happens to a baby during those nine crucial months between conception and birth if the mother smokes or drinks? The mother or prospective mother who absorbs alcohol or cigarette smoke may well be handicapping her baby’s right to a normal, healthy body. The importance of recent medical research is of such magnitude that all parents and prospective parents should understand this data. In just the last three or four years, several significant discoveries have been made, discoveries so important that doctors across the nation have launched a campaign against parents’ smoking.1

Here are some discoveries:

1. A smoking mother’s newborn baby is smaller, on the average, by 7.1 ounces than the baby of a nonsmoking mother.2 That’s an important difference—especially since it’s directly related to carboxyhemoglobin levels in the blood.3 Carboxyhemoglobin, an abnormal form of hemoglobin, is formed by carbon monoxide inhaled during smoking.

2. When a mother in the thirty-second to thirty-eighth week of an otherwise normal pregnancy smokes two cigarettes in succession, fetal breathing movements diminish.4 These movements are thought to be an important indication of fetal well being.

3. Stillbirths and abortions are slightly increased among smoking women.5 We have no evidence that more malformations occur,6 or that growth or intellect is affected, but some researchers are concerned that we may be missing subtle manifestations.7

4. During a baby’s first year of life, he will suffer most from pneumonia and bronchitis when both parents smoke, less when only one parent smokes, and least when neither parent smokes.8 Another study backs it up: more babies under the age of one are admitted to the hospital for bronchitis and pneumonia if their mothers smoke.9 Since babies’ air passages are so much smaller than adults, any inflammatory mucus such as that caused by cigarette smoke causes greater illness, sometimes even threatening their lives.10

Furthermore, parents’ smoking may increase a child’s risk of chronic lung disease when he reaches adulthood. Babies who suffered from pneumonia and bronchitis in early childhood were at higher risk for chronic respiratory disease as adults.11 Smoking parents may program their children’s young lungs for problems in later life.12

5. When parents smoke, chances are significantly increased that their children will also smoke. Not only that, but they commonly start smoking earlier in life than the children of nonsmoking parents.13

How about drinking? The results are even more distressing. A particularly disconcerting event in the history of medicine occurred in 1973 when the “fetal alcohol syndrome” was described for the first time.14 This condition is so severe and disabling that it is astonishing that it had gone unnoticed until so recently. In fact, the condition was described years ago; but its importance was not fully appreciated, and the report was unfortunately lost to obscurity. Experiments with animals have shown massive side effects—including brain damage—in the offspring of chickens, rats, and guinea pigs that had been given alcohol.15

What characterizes the fetal alcohol syndrome? A pattern of congenital anomalies is apparent. When the mother is alcoholic, the child’s growth both before and after birth may be stunted. Such children are usually below the third percentile in height and weight. Other smaller-than-average newborns usually have catch-up growth. These don’t. Their heads are smaller, and evidence indicates that their intelligence is affected.

Other assorted problems and handicaps include abnormally small palpebral fissures (opening between the eyelids), small jaws, cleft palates, small mouths, limited motion of the hands and elbows, possible dislocated hips, poor eye/hand coordination, tremulousness, heart defects, and abnormal genitalia. Naturally, most cases do not have all these problems, but most have significant problems with growth, development, and intelligence.16

One study indicates that alcoholic women lose 17 percent of their offspring, either through miscarriage, stillbirth, or death shortly after birth. Of those that survive, 32 percent have this terribly damaging syndrome and 44 percent have IQs of 79 or below.17 Obviously, an alcoholic woman is gambling when she becomes pregnant, and the stakes are her baby’s health.

Granted, alcoholics often have malnutrition; but researchers believe the syndrome is caused by alcohol instead, since at least three alcoholic mothers in one study were well-nourished and experiments with animals used alcohol intake as the only variable.18

What about mothers who drink but who are not alcoholics? Unpublished research at Johns Hopkins University indicates that when the mother drinks one glass of liquor daily, the weight of her baby averages 6.3 ounces less than the babies of non-drinkers. The same study also showed retarded reading ability in early school years.19

These children, then, are born small and retarded—permanently unable to catch up. What a tragic legacy!

And the evidence presented here is only one small area where scientific research has corroborated the truth of the Word of Wisdom. Of all the substances Joseph Smith could have discussed, why did he specifically choose alcohol and tobacco? How would he have been able to single out items that would be scientifically condemned in the future, if he had lacked guidance from a supreme power?

The scriptures refer to the Lord’s visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generations. (See Ex. 34:7; Mosiah 13:13.) In the case of alcohol and tobacco, children indeed suffer from their parents’ indiscretions.

Photography by Longin Lonczyna