Warning over pregnant smokers
More than one in 10 mothers-to-be smoke all through their pregnancy, the latest report on Irish children has revealed.
While the amount of expectant mothers who kept up the habit fell from 28% to 17% from 1999 to 2007, some 13% remained full-time smokers during the pregnancy.
The Growing Up in Ireland study found women who experience a great deal of stress are much more likely to continue the habit while poverty and poor education are also factors in women who smoke while expecting.
The opposite was found for women who drink during pregnancy, the report said.
Irish mothers are significantly less likely to report drinking during a pregnancy but those who were regarded as better off and better educated were more likely to drink while expecting a child.
The researchers also warned that due to the drinking culture in Ireland babies are more often exposed to high levels of alcohol until a woman's pregnancy is confirmed.
They called for more focus on reducing alcohol consumption among younger women for the benefit of themselves and their children's health.
Professor Richard Layte of Trinity College Dublin and the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), who wrote the report with Dr Cathal McCrory, said children could suffer for the rest of their lives due to the decisions their mothers make during pregnancy.
"Poor child and maternal environment during pregnancy and infancy contributes to early ill health and may have life-long consequences," he said.
"Research internationally shows that Investment in maternity services and community health services saves money both in the short and long run."
The report focused on smoking, drinking and breastfeeding in the prenatal and antenatal period and their affect on a child's birth weight and subsequent growth and development from birth to nine months.
It will be published today by Health Minister Dr James Reilly.
Other findings from the study include:
:: If the woman's partner continues to smoke during the pregnancy, the mother is 70% less likely to quit.
:: Irish mothers-to-be are significantly less likely to report drinking during pregnancy compared to women in the UK, but those who do consume alcohol are more likely to drink more heavily.
:: There is a steady relationship between number of cigarettes smoked in pregnancy and birth weight: smoking 11+ cigarettes daily decreases birth weight by a third of a kilo on average.
:: Almost half of children were weaned onto solid foods before the guideline age of six months, although the reasons for early weaning were unclear.
:: Less breastfeeding and earlier weaning onto solid foods was associated with an unhealthy pattern of weight gain in infancy.
The researchers urged the Government to make the prevention of smoking in pregnancy a priority with cessation campaigns designed to target the woman's partner.
They also urged maternity units to set up assessment and intervention initiatives to tackle stress and anxiety in expectant mothers from the first appointment.
Health chiefs were also encouraged to increase resources to promote breastfeeding.
The study warned that the prevalence of early weaning in Ireland - before a baby reaches six months - suggests parents in Ireland are not aware of the health consequences.
Dr Reilly said: "This report and its findings are a clear reminder that the prenatal period and the early years of a child's life provide a unique window of opportunity to establish lifelong health and well-being patterns.
"We must do what we can to protect children from harmful exposure to smoking in the prenatal and early childhood period and re-establish breastfeeding as the cultural norm in Ireland, thereby making it the natural choice for parents."
The Growing Up In Ireland study is following the progress of almost 20,000 children and their families - 11,134 children participating at nine months, three years and five years of age and another 8,568 children interviewed at nine and 13.