Q&A: cigarette smoke around a baby

Angela (who notes that English is not her first language) writes:

"I have been reading your advice from the beginning even though I don’t have any kids right now, but we are trying to conceive and I want to see what I’m getting myself into.

I would like to know what you think about an issue in particular, namely, cigarette smoke. To be more specific, my spouse and I don’t smoke, and we ask our friends and relatives not to smoke in our home, which is generally well accepted, except from his mom, but she won’t come visit us, so that’s not really the problem. The problem is that when we visit my parents and my spouse’s father, who live in the same town, we generally stay at my parents'. My dad smokes, but we asked to limit his smoking when we visit because we both are very sensitive to it (we used to get physically sick for about a week after we visited, until I got the courage to approach my parents about it). Now, my spouse has started telling me that, when we do have a baby, we won’t stay at my parents because the house still smells like cigarette (he still gets a bit sick because of the smell and the residual smoke).

I’m conflicted. On one hand, I agree that I don’t want to expose my baby to cigarette smoke at all. But on the other hand, I don’t see myself telling my parents that we won’t stay at their house because of the cigarette. We can stay at my spouse’s father’s house, that's not a problem. They love us and will be very happy to see us. But we always stayed at my parents and it will hurt them. I know my spouse won’t back down on this subject, unless my dad stops smoking.

What would you do about this? Is this an issue you had to deal with?"

I do have experience with this question. My MIL and BIL smoke. My BIL is an extremely considerate smoker, one of those guys who just escapes quietly every once in awhile to go have a butt outside. My MIL smokes on her back glass-enclosed porch and thinks the smell doesn't come into the rest of her house. I don't think any of the actual smoke or dangerous fumes are coming into the rest of her house, but the stink certainly is (and she's not even a heavy smoker--maybe only 3-4 a day). When I was pregnant the smell really bothered me, and my husband and I had a bunch of the same kinds of discussions you did. Ultimately what we ended up doing was still going to visit, but going into a different part of the house while she smoked on the porch, and only coming back when the smell has dissipated enough to make it reasonably pleasant again. The not-so-nice part of me wants to be passive-aggressive and make a big deal out of it when I leave the room with the kids, but ultimately I realized that my MIL is genuinely trying to be considerate. She just doesn't smell the smell anymore.

I think you have an entirely different issue than I did, though. It sounds like your dad smokes a lot and that he smokes throughout their entire house. Because you note that English isn't your first language, I'm guessing that you might live in a country in which smoking is much more culturally acceptable than it is here in the US, and people smoke more heavily and in more places (in many locations in the US you can't smoke in public places at all, only inyour own living space or outdoors). So it won't be a simple issue of just moving to a different part of the house a couple of times a day.

The other thing that's different is that you and your husband have serious physical reactions to being around so much smoke. With that kind of genetic history, there's a strong chance that your baby will have bad reactions to cigarette smoke, too. It just won't be safe to have a baby for long in a house full of smoke. I think we parents need to cut grandparents some slack about feeding and other issues that seem like huge deals to us, but aren't actually going to be harmful in the long run. But this is something different. The bottom line is that you have to protect your child, even if that means taking a stand against your parents. Especially if it's a medical issue.

I'm always telling people that when asked how/where/when their baby is sleeping they should just lie. That's kind of my first principle of Parenting Without Taking On Other People's Issues, Because You'll Have Enough Of Your Own Anyway. My second principle of PWTOOPIBYHEOYOA is: "When you have to tell someone something they won't want to hear, blame your pediatrician." This is a perfect application of that principle. If you explain the situation to your pediatrician, s/he will most certainly forbid you to stay at your parents' house with the baby. So even if you don't discuss it with your baby's doctor, you can still say your ped told you the baby can't stay in a house in which someone smokes. Period. End of disussion. They shouldn't be offended by that, although they will, of course, but if you make it clear that it's not your choice, but a medical issue, then that's it.

I wonder if your dad will make an effort to quit or cut down, or at least keep parts of the house smoke-free, once you actually have a child. Grandparents sometimes really come around and surprise us once the grandchild is actually there. So you might want to take a wait and see attitude.

Another thing I think is part of this is that non-smokers resent the smokers we love keeping up a habit while will ultimately kill them. This resentment becomes especially fierce when we have kids, because it feels like a grandparent should care enough about their grandchild to want to give up smoking and live longer. Most experts agree that smoking is one of the hardest addictions to break, so I try to remember that it's not as simple as saying "I've got these great grandchildren now, so let me throw away the butts." I also think that for lots of smokers, part of their identity is wrapped up in smoking (after all, most of them refer to themselves as "smokers," not as "people who smoke"). It's a complicated dance to do, to let them know we'd help them quit if they want to, but not to push anything on them (NB: offering to buy your MIL a course of Wellbutrin, no matter how many people you know who've quit successfully using it, is not going to make things particularly comfortable at Christmas dinner).

I think you've assessed correctly that this is going to be a tough issue for your family. But you and your husband are going to have to present a united front to protect your child. If you make a special effort to see your parents as much as possible in a location that doesn't allow your dad to smoke, you'll be able to give your child plenty of time with his/her grandparents without compromising the baby's health. And if you're lucky, your standing firm might encourage your dad to cut down or even stop smoking.