Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

Smoking, vaping or even having nicotine patches during pregnancy may increase the risk of cot death

New research shows that babies can be at an increased risk of cot death if exposed to cigarettes or e-cigarette smoke while in the womb.

NEW RESEARCH REVEALS exposure to nicotine during pregnancy may increase the risk of babies being vulnerable to sudden infant death syndrome, commonly known as cot death.

Smoking cigarettes, vaping e-cigarettes or even taking nicotine patches are all key factors that increase the risk.

The research also showed that nicotine replacement therapies, often used by smokers to quit during pregnancy, are not a safe alternative to cigarettes and still leave babies at risk.

Sudden infant death syndrome is the sudden and unexpected death of an apparently healthy baby which happens typically while the baby is sleeping during the first 12 months of life.

The research by the Journal of Physiology showed that a pregnant woman being exposed to nicotine can affect the baby’s central nervous system and make breathing difficult in stressful environments, where babies are unable to take in oxygen.

These developing babies then find themselves unable to recover from environmental stresses that cause lack of oxygen, such as getting tangled in bedding.

A researcher from the study said that “sudden infant death syndrome is such a distressing tragedy for families. We still don’t fully understand the causes, but this research is important because it helps mothers reduce the risk.”

According to the HSE, smoking during pregnancy means that a baby is four times more likely to experience sudden infant death syndrome than if the mother did not smoke.

Exposure to cigarette smoke in the environment is also a risk after birth, and continually exposing a newborn baby to a smoky environment can see a child eight times more likely to die of cot death.

Avoiding risks

Infants born prematurely or with a low birth weight are at greater risk, and the condition is more common in boys.

Being mindful of how and where babies sleep are key preventive measures to protect babies from the risk of sudden infant death syndrome.

Parents should put babies to sleep in their own cot rather than with an adult, and babies should sleep on their back, avoiding sleeping on their side or stomach.

Babies should not sleep with a duvet, quilt or pillow and parents should monitor the room temperature, as increased exposure to heat is a risk factor.

Lightweight fabric should be used in bedding of the cot and babies should never sleep with a hot water bottle or electric blanket.


This study was undertaken at the Geisel school of medicine in New Hampshire, which saw young animal tested on their exposure to nicotine.

Rats consumed nicotine through the blood and milk of their mothers and their response was recorded during repeated exposure to severe low oxygen.

Advice on how to stop smoking during pregnancy can be sought from a GP or pharmacist or for free help to quit smoking from the HSE, contact the QUIT team on or freephone 1800 201 203.

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