With the decriminalisation of marijuana, there’s no denying the stigma surrounding the drug is slowly dissipating. As such, more and more questions are arising as to the appropriate time and place to bust out a joint. And those looming questions apply to everyone, including moms-to-be and new moms, particularly when it comes to breastfeeding. After all, if some experts now say it’s acceptable to have the occasional glass of wine while pregnant and breastfeeding, does the same go for marijuana?
In short: no. The benefits of breastfeeding your baby are major — according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it can protect from infant diarrhoea, UTIs, respiratory tract infections, obesity and a number of diseases like diabetes and lymphoma. Breastfeeding can also help new moms return to their pre-pregnancy weight and lower their risk for breast and ovarian cancers. But when a mom smokes weed and breastfeeds, the risks outweigh the benefits.
While there isn’t much data to show how many nursing mothers are smoking weed, there is research to show that pregnant women are smoking weed in growing numbers. In a self-reported research letter published in JAMA, the rate of pot-smoking pregnant women in the US increased from 2.4 to 3.9 percent between 2002 to 2014. (It’s important to note that the data relied on women reporting their own use — so in reality, the numbers may be even higher.) The study notes that this can be problematic as prenatal marijuana use may impair birth weight, fetal growth, and brain development. Plus, these women are likely continuing their habit post-pregnancy, says Dr Lauren Jansson, associate professor of paediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of medicine who specialises in drug abuse research.
There may be a semi-understandable reason pregnant women are lighting up. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in the US reported that some pregnant women use cannabis as a way to combat pregnancy-related nausea. Since the drug is often prescribed for treatment of nausea for cancer patients, it may seem like a safe way to feel better. In fact, many cannabis dispensaries in the US are peddling marijuana to pregnant women for morning sickness. In a study out of Colorado (where recreational marijuana is legal), nearly 70 percent of dispensaries were telling pregnant women that smoking weed was safe for their unborn child.
Another factor: It’s less likely that women are simply picking up a recreational weed habit during pregnancy or postpartum, or getting high on a one-off basis with their baby by their side. Rather, there may be a dependency issue at play. “One in five women using marijuana during pregnancy are likely to have cannabis-use disorder,” Dr Jansson adds, which is clinically defined as a problematic pattern of cannabis use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress. That may be associated with higher instances of psychiatric issues, too.
Okay, so how does smoking during pregnancy affect fetal development?
When it comes to smoking during pregnancy, there are some limited studies that looked at fetuses exposed to marijuana in utero. According to one published in Future Neurol, smoking weed while pregnant led to negative effects on infant behaviour. Other research found that issues with things like executive functioning (the brain’s ability to plan and organise) may begin to surface during adolescence. And a 2016 meta-analysis of 24 studies of women who used cannabis during pregnancy found that their babies had lower birth weights than babies whose mothers didn’t ingest weed while they were pregnant, and they were also more likely to be put into neonatal intensive care. Though other, conflicting research, doesn’t indicate any issue with birth weight related to marijuana. It appears that smoking with high frequency is what makes a low birth weight more likely.
Additional research shows that marijuana use during pregnancy can increase the risk of stillbirth. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found a 2.3 times greater risk of stillbirth for women who smoked marijuana during their pregnancies.
How does weed impact breastmilk?
Smoke weed as a breastfeeding mom, and the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the ingredient in cannabis that activates cannabinoid receptors in your brain to produce mind-altering side effects from euphoria to panic — goes into your bloodstream. It then concentrates in breastmilk (THC loves fat, something breastmilk has a lot of). In 2018, the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology published a small study of eight women who used marijuana while breastfeeding, and found that babies ingest roughly 2.5 percent of the dose their mom smokes or eats. And just like THC affects your brain, says Dr Jansson, it also triggers the cannabinoid receptors in a fetus’s or infant’s brain, too, setting off many potential effects on their development. What’s more, you can’t “pump and dump” after smoking — marijuana can stay in your system for days, weeks, or up to two months (if you’re a chronic user).
Jansson says that when looking at marijuana in breastmilk and its impact on brain development, earlier research has linked it to delayed motor development at 1 year of age, while other research shows no effects.
How does secondhand marijuana smoke affect babies?
Not only should you worry about THC in your breastmilk, but it also stays on your breath after a single marijuana cigarette, which you can then breathe on your baby, says Dr Jansson. “Animal studies show that this secondhand exposure has a big effect on an animal’s development,” she adds.
What You Need To Keep In Mind About Breastfeeding And Smoking Weed
While there is some conflicting research on the severity of the effects of marijuana use during pregnancy and breastfeeding, “We don’t have evidence that good things happen, but there is evidence that bad things happen,” says Dr Jansson. “Anecdotally, I see pretty significant effects on early infant development because of a mom’s chronic marijuana use.”
Because of the limited data, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists discourages pregnant or breastfeeding women from using pot. The committee also says that obstetric-gynaes should not prescribe medical marijuana to these women. If you’re a current medical marijuana user looking to get pregnant, talk to your doc about alternatives you can use during pregnancy and lactation.
“There are moms who are going on record in the press saying that marijuana makes them a better mother. No one’s a better mother for chronic use,” says Dr Jansson. “You’re using it in the face of significant consequences.”
This article was originally published on www.womenshealthsa.co.za
Image credit: iStock