One in five women trying to get pregnant smoked cigarettes while actively trying to conceive, a new study has found.
The research, conducted by leading pregnancy charity Tommy’s, discovered a slew of other troubling findings which demonstrate the lack of awareness around the dangers of smoking cigarettes, consuming alcohol and caffeine and not eating healthily while trying for a baby.
More than half of the women polled drank alcohol, while four-fifths consumed caffeine while attempting to have a child.
Researchers analysed over 130,000 women who used Tommy’s Planning for Pregnancy tool, which questions women about their health in order to provide specialised advice on changes to lifestyle which can curb the risks which pregnancy entails.
The fifth of women who smoked cigarettes is considerably higher than the 14 per cent of the wider population who smokes.
This gap could be linked to the fact women who use the pregnancy planning app may be doing so after trying to get pregnant for a while without managing to - with the higher smoking rate linked to smokers struggling to conceive so being more likely to use the tool.
The report, published in BMC Pregnancy & Childbirth journal, found almost four per cent of women had used recreational drugs while trying for a baby. Younger or underweight women were more likely to smoke or take drugs, with almost a third smoking and some five per cent taking drugs while attempting to conceive.
Amina Hatia, a midwife who works for Tommy’s, said: “Most people make changes to look after their health and wellbeing once they know they’re expecting, but many don’t realise that acting even earlier can really help get the body ready for pregnancy.
“It’s not just about cutting out risky things like caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes; taking positive steps like keeping active and eating a balanced diet can also make a big difference.
“Pregnancy-related health issues often have nothing to do with parents’ lifestyles, but research shows there are things that can reduce the risks, so sharing this information is a vital part of our mission to make the UK the safest place in the world to have a baby. Starting a family can be stressful and knowledge is power when it comes to making that journey as smooth as possible.”
Campaigners at the charity noted there are no proper services in the NHS which help individuals get their bodies ready for pregnancy - adding that when someone manages to get pregnant and accesses antenatal care they may have left it “too late” to make key lifestyle changes.
Just half of all the women polled ate the five portions of fruit and vegetable a day which the government recommends, with just over four in ten exercising for the recommended 150 minutes per week.
Dr Angela Flynn, one of the report’s authors, said: “Every parent wants to give their children the best start in life, but our study suggests it’s not well known in the UK that people can take steps before they even start trying to increase their chances of having a safe pregnancy and a healthy baby.
“Despite lots of evidence that folic acid supplements improve pregnancy health, few people we studied were taking them when trying for a baby – and research from the turn of the century found similar trends, so it’s worrying that awareness and behaviours haven’t really improved.”
Dr Sara White, one of the report’s authors, said: “We’ve also got a unique window onto these women’s behaviour, as they may well be more open when anonymously using the Tommy’s tool than if we asked face-to-face in a clinic setting.”
The free online Planning for Pregnancy tool was created with the help of Public Health England and the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists, as well as being supported by NHS England and the Royal College of General Practitioners.
Professor Lesley Regan, President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, added: “Nutrition and lifestyle in the preconception period is crucial to having a good pregnancy and birth. Diet, weight and the body’s metabolism prior to conception impacts on the chances of conceiving naturally, having a good pregnancy and delivery, as well as affecting the health of children in their later life.
“Focusing on the importance of maintaining a healthy diet and weight prior to conception will not only improve the health of individuals but also the health and quality of life of future generations.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies