Posted on: March 26, 2019 at 4:15 pm
Last updated: December 2, 2019 at 8:04 pm

Good parents know that they represent their child’s first and often only line of defense. They want what’s best for their kids, even if it means disagreeing with friends, family members, or social norms. Their child’s health, wellbeing, and future is their #1 concern.


Unfortunately, sometimes this means playing “bad cop” with other very important people in your lives. The most stereotypically tricky relationship to navigate is with a mother-in-law who thinks she knows best.

Father of two, Carvell Wallace is the voice of Care and Feeding, answering questions about the ins-and-outs of modern parenthood for all to read. This March, Wallace addressed a particularly awkward situation:


Dear Care and Feeding,

I am expecting my first baby soon. When the baby is born, my in-laws will be coming for a visit. My mother-in-law is a heavy smoker. I’m not worried about her smoking in front of my child, but after researching thirdhand smoke, I am very concerned about her holding the baby after she has had a cigarette. My husband and I have decided that after she smokes, she needs to shower and change her clothes before she can pick up the baby.

We don’t want my mother-in-law to feel ostracized, and we don’t want to hurt her feelings, but obviously, those are likely potential outcomes. How can we still be welcoming and let her know we are excited to have her around while still setting these boundaries? Also, how long should we remain this strict about the issue? How should we handle this when we are visiting my in-laws?

—Worried Daughter-in-Law”

Is Thirdhand Smoke Real?

Whereas secondhand smoke describes exposure to toxic substances from being around a person actively smoking, thirdhand smoke is exposure from coming into contact with fabrics and materials that have been saturated with toxic chemicals over time.

Peter DeCarlo, an atmospheric chemist at Drexel University in Philadelphia led a study on thirdhand smoke. He says, “It shows that just because you’re in a nonsmoking environment, it doesn’t mean you aren’t exposed to tobacco. That Uber car you jump into, the hotel room you stay in, even a classroom where smoking hasn’t been allowed for decades: These are places where you are often exposed to a lot more than you expect.” (1)

Furniture, clothing, curtains, and flooring can all be contaminated by smoking residue, regardless of whether a smoker tries to air out a room or confine their habit to the outdoors.

Dr. J Taylor Hays tells MayoClinic, “Children and nonsmoking adults might be at risk of tobacco-related health problems when they inhale, swallow or touch substances containing thirdhand smoke. Infants and young children might have increased exposure to thirdhand smoke due to their tendency to mouth objects and touch affected surfaces.” (2)


Read Related: What Parents Need to Know About Juuling

Limiting Children’s Exposure to Thirdhand Smoke

So Worried Daughter-in-Law’s fears are justified from a medical standpoint. But is there a way to make the awkward request from the in-laws?

Wallace suggested to strictly enforce the showering and changing rule when the in-laws came over to visit, but not to expect the same when visiting their house. After all, it would be impossible to cleanse everything in the house from smoking residue. Instead, he advises to stay in a hotel room to minimize exposure.

When it comes down to it, Wallace agrees that it’s a parent’s responsibility to care for their child, even if some feelings get hurt along the way. “I know you don’t want your mother-in-law to feel ostracized, and I know that’s a likely outcome of stating what your needs are here, but I would take this opportunity to remind you that you are perfectly within your rights to ask for what you want; her response to that is her business, not yours,” he says. (3)

The bottom line is that the safest way to protect your children from the carcinogenic chemicals in cigarettes is to be a completely smoke-free family.

Read Next: Why Fragrance is the New Second Hand Smoke

What would you do if you were in this mom’s position?

Maria Sykes
Team Writer
Marie Sykes is an Ontario based writer with a background in research and a love for holistic wellness. She's especially interested in boosting awareness for women's health issues. Once a shunner of gyms, Marie has found an appreciation for weight training and HIIT circuits. She enjoys trying cuisine from all over the world, and she also enjoys not caring two cents what other people think her body should look like.

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