Quitting smoking during pregnancy: how to handle cigarette cravings

If you’re a pregnant smoker, giving up cigarettes is one of the best things you can do for your baby. But it could also be one of the hardest. Chances are, your smoking is more than just a habit or a way to pass the time. It’s an addiction. When you give up that addiction, you can expect to feel cravings sudden, powerful urges to light up again. When they first strike, these cravings may seem unstoppable, like a riptide pulling you under. But no matter how strong those urges feel, you can be even stronger. You can face your cravings head on without giving in. Eventually the cravings will pass, leaving you time to cope with other urges, like your fierce but impractical desire to hold your new baby every minute of the day.

What causes cravings?

The next time you look at a pack of cigarettes, picture 20 little syringes all loaded with an addictive drug. When you puff on a cigarette, your brain gets a blast of nicotine within seconds. Not even an injection could work any faster. Once nicotine hits your brain, it acts much like any other addictive drug. Specifically, it stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers, the same parts that dish out pleasant feelings as a reward for things like having sex or drinking a cold glass of water on a hot day. Nobody would say that a rush of nicotine feels like sex it’s more in that glass of water territory but it’s good enough to make the brain want more, more, more.

Cravings can kick in whenever your brain notices a shortfall of the drug. Cravings can also start whenever you get a “cue” that it’s time to smoke. Even if your blood is coursing with nicotine from a patch, you could still get a strong craving if you catch a whiff of cigarette smoke or if you happen to visit your favorite place to light up. In fact, just about anything your brain associates with smoking a place, an object, an emotion can suddenly ignite a strong urge to smoke. If you always smoke when you read the newspaper, for instance, you probably won’t be able to get past the first page without feeling a craving.

For Joy Dewell, a 29 year old mother living in Bozeman, Montana, cravings went hand in hand with stress. Although never a heavy smoker she usually maxed out at about a half pack a day Dewell habitually lighted a cigarette whenever she felt anxious or upset. When she learned a little more than three years ago that she was pregnant, the anxiety started coming in waves. “It was an unplanned pregnancy, and my husband and I knew that our lives were about to change forever,” she says. “We took a look at our financial situation and wondered if we were ready.” She quit smoking immediately after she found out she was pregnant, but the urge to smoke would hit her hard whenever she thought about the size of her checking account or the housing prices in Bozeman.

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