Smoking Mothers Give Birth to Anti-Social Children (Read on!)

Smoking Mothers and Anti-Social ChildrenOn an upcoming episode of Family Anatomy Dr. Brian and I will be discussing the research on stress and pregnancy. One of the points we’ll be making is that alarming and sensational headlines can create unnecessary worry in expectant mothers. A study recently in the journal Development and Psychopathology led to the headline “Smoking During Pregnancy Fosters Aggression In Children”. Now, while it is certainly true that smoking is associated with increased risks for both mom and her developing fetus and that discouraging smoking in pregnant women is important, the link between smoking and anti-social behaviour does appear to be stretching credulity. Past research has shown that while smoking in general is on the decline, people in lower socio-economic conditions continue to have higher smoking rates. In addition, our justice system tends to focus on offenses that target those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Therefore, it should come as a surprise when in the body of this article the researchers state, “the research team found the risk of giving birth to aggressive children increases among smoking mothers whose familial income is lower than $40,000 per year”.  Another intuitive truth found in the body of the article states that a”risk factor for aggressive behaviour in offspring was smoking mothers with a history of antisocial behaviour: run-ins with the law, high school drop-outs and illegal drug use”. Again, when you read on in the article you find that the 40% greater chance of having anti-social behaviour in children of mothers who smoke fell to an 8% higher chance when kids from families making less than $40,000 a year were considered.

The moral of this story? Headlines are a necessary and important way for writers to attract viewers. However, beware of reading headlines, moving on to other stories and believing that you’ve just gain an important new fact or truth. The articles below the headlines are often much more nuanced and give you a much improved understand of the true meaning of the research being presented.

You can read more about these studies here (PDF) and  here.

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One Response to Smoking Mothers Give Birth to Anti-Social Children (Read on!)
  1. brianmacdonald
    April 29, 2009 | 2:08 pm

    Although Dr. G rightly cautions that we should be critical of media reports about research findings, he may be guilty of throwing out real results along with the spurious ones. As he suggests in his article, one must look beyond eye-catching headlines and examine the actual information. A few things were reported in the study he cites that were not included in his description of it.

    Dr. G notes an additional link between antisocial behaviour and lower-income families; mothers who smoked during pregnancy also tended to be from households making less than $40,000 per year . He fails to note that many of the studies referenced in the review by Wakschlag and colleagues controlled statistically for household income, as well as maternal age. In addition, the authors of the review referenced a study conducted in Yugoslavia, where smoking and socio-economic status are positively related (wealthier people are more likely to smoke), that found a similar link between maternal smoking during pregnancy and later behaviour problems for the children.

    I agree that more research is needed to clarify the relationship between maternal smoking and later behavioural difficulties. However, I think it’s premature to throw out the results of several studies that found such a link. Even if we discount the notion that chemicals introduced in utero could have a later impact on behaviour or learning (and researchers investigating fetal alcohol effects believe that some chemicals have just such an impact), I believe the physical health risks of smoking during pregnancy have been sufficiently verified.

    In short, be critical of research findings that you read about. Look at the specifics, not just the headlines. But don’t throw out the good results with the bad!