WEDNESDAY, Dec. 19, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Children whose mothers were exposed to secondhand smoke while they were pregnant may be at greater risk for behavioral problems, according to a new study.
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing found that prenatal exposure to secondhand smoke, or environmental tobacco smoke, was linked to attention problems and aggression. They added that children exposed to secondhand smoke in the womb also fared worse on language, speech and intelligence tests.
"Such findings could inform public health efforts to reduce public smoking and underscores the need for including [environmental tobacco smoke] avoidance as a potential component of prenatal care among pregnant women," study lead author Jianghong-Liu, an associate professor at Penn Nursing, said in a school news release.
In conducting the study, the researchers analyzed information on 646 children and their mothers living in China -- a country in which 70 percent of men smoke.
Using a common checklist of behavioral and emotional problems in children, the researchers found 25 percent of children whose mothers were exposed to secondhand smoke had behavioral problems. In contrast, behavioral problems affected 16 percent of children whose mothers were not exposed to passive smoke. The researchers noted that children whose mothers inhaled secondhand smoke also performed worse on tests of conduct disorders.
"Given the high prevalence of [environmental tobacco smoke] exposure among pregnant women in China and the far-reaching effects of child behavioral disturbance on public health outcomes, it is critical to reduce [such] exposure in order to improve the health of not only mothers and their children but that of society at large," Liu concluded. "The key message for pregnant women is to protect their growing fetus from exposure to secondhand smoke."
The study took the parents' education, job, marital status and psychological problems into account. The investigators noted, however, that more research is needed to confirm their findings.
The study was published in a recent online edition of NeuroToxicology.
While the study found an association between pregnant women exposed to secondhand smoke and behavioral problems in their children, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
Visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to learn how to protect children from secondhand smoke.