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The Effects of Smoking Weed While Breastfeeding

Updated on March 23, 2015
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Trained in dentistry, Sree is currently studying lab sciences. She enjoys researching various health topics and writing about her findings.

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Who Is Using Marijuana?

Worldwide, marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug, one that has been historically used medicinally in many cultures around the world. The cultural, medical, and legal attitudes toward marijuana and its use are shifting rapidly today as more and more people are analyzing assumptions about its use.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 2.5% of the world population—about 147 million people—use cannabis. In the US, government-funded surveys show that 25 million Americans have smoked marijuana in the past year, and more than 14 million smoke it regularly, despite the fact that it is illegal. A 2013 Gallup poll revealed that 38% of Americans had tried marijuana, and the age group that reported the highest level of experimentation with marijuana were the 30-49 year-olds, where 49% reported trying it.

So throughout the world, many people use marijuana for many different reasons. Some of these people are breastfeeding mothers. These women's reasons for using marijuana may stem from breastfeeding itself or may be merely coincidental but, for whatever reason, a breastfeeding mother will want to know what effect her marijuana use has on her milk and her baby.

What Is Marijuana Used For?

The medical uses of marijuana, which had been used as medicine since 2900 BC until its criminalization in 1920s and 30s, are now being reexamined.

Marijuana contains the active ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, a compound that has natural receptors in the brain called cannabinoid receptors. This is the main reason why a person can become addicted to marijuana and may also be a reason for its widespread historical use.

Many studies have demonstrated therapeutic effects of cannabinoids for nausea and vomiting in many illnesses like cancer and AIDS. Controlled studies demonstrate that cannabinoids may be useful in treatment of asthma and glaucoma, as an appetite stimulant, anticonvulsant, anti-spasmodic, and as an antidepressant. More research is needed to verify its medical use, but some states and countries, such as Colorado and the Netherlands, have already legalized the medical use of marijuana.

Marijuana use, in both the short and long term, also has a long list of negative side effects, including addiction, respiratory problems, increased risk of heart attack, as well as risks of mental illness and psychological problems. Its negative effects on memory and brain development may be long lasting or permanent. Marijuana use during pregnancy may increase the risk of neurobehavioral problems in babies.

But what are the effects of marijuana use on a mother's milk? If the mother uses marijuana, what are the effects on her breastfed baby? Do the possible benefits of THC outweigh its possible harms?

Very little research has been done on the effects of marijuana on breast milk and babies, but you will find the limited research described and analyzed below.

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Effects of THC in the Breastfeeding Mother's Milk

We know that delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the active compound in marijuana, readily binds to brain receptors and alters brain function. Once THC is bound in the brain, dopamine is released, altering sensory perception and mood. But does the THC affect a breastfeeding baby and, if so, how?

Although published data is limited (a lot of the data is taken from random breast milk samples and anonymous polls rather than controlled studies, due to legal and ethical considerations of administering marijuana to nursing mothers), it appears that the active components of marijuana are indeed excreted into breast milk in small quantities, depending on how much and how often the mother uses: the more marijuana a woman uses, the greater the amount of THC in her breast milk.

Again, although some of these studies were very small and every study needs duplication and verification, here's what the studies show so far:

  • Limited research and data suggests that babies exposed to the breast milk of marijuana-using mothers appeared more sedated and displayed a weaker sucking reflex than babies who were not exposed to THC.
  • One long-term study found that although a mother's daily or almost-daily use had no effect on her baby's growth or intellectual development, her use might slow her infant's motor development. This study compared 68 one-year-olds whose mothers reported smoking marijuana during breastfeeding to 68 one-year-olds whose mothers didn't, and although the duration of breastfeeding was not a constant variable and no effect was found on mental development or height or weight gain, the motor development of the marijuana-exposed children was slightly reduced, especially in those children whose mothers reported smoking marijuana more than every other day during the first month of breastfeeding.
  • Another study found that occasional maternal marijuana use during breastfeeding did not have any discernible effect on breastfed infants, but the study was not enough to rule out long-term effects.
  • Traces of THC compounds were found in the urine and feces samples taken from infants of marijuana-using moms, indicating that the THC had been absorbed from the breast milk, metabolized, and excreted by the infants.
  • Many studies show the negative effects of secondhand smoke on infants. Like cigarettes, marijuana should not be smoked in the vicinity of infants.

Effect of Marijuana on Breastmilk

If a mother uses marijuana, most of the THC is excreted via her feces, urine, tears, and sweat, and if she is producing milk, a small amount of THC will be excreted through her milk, as well.

Chronic marijuana use can be detected in the fatty tissues, like the tissues of breasts, where THC accumulates and stores for long periods.

Compared to blood, breast milk carries a much higher concentration of THC. One study showed that a mother's breast milk has a THC concentration eight times higher than her blood plasma.

The THC from the mother's milk will be passed on to and stored in the baby. Babies who breastfed from mothers who used marijuana have tested positive for THC in their urine for up to 2 to 3 weeks after being exposed to the breast milk.

Smoking marijuana seems to effect the mother's lactation process, but it's unclear exactly how. Studies have found that THC can decrease or depress the effects of prolactin, the hormone responsible for stimulating the increased production of breast milk. Less prolactin mean less breast milk production. But other reports express the opposite, citing cases of hyperprolactinemia (a condition characterized by excess prolactin, the hormone responsible for a woman's milk production) reported by some chronic marijuana users, and conditions of galactorrhea (excessive or inappropriate production of milk) and hyperprolactinemia were reported by a woman who smoked marijuana for over a year, although none of these reports constitutes a rigorous or significant study of the effect of marijuana use on women's milk production.

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Other Questions About Smoking Marijuana While Breastfeeding

Can marijuana affect a mother's ability to nurse her child? Marijuana does not appear to adversely affect the production of milk or duration of lactation, but more studies are needed to determine the effect of marijuana use on milk production.

What if a breastfeeding mother is addicted to marijuana? Should she stop breastfeeding? If you could put the two sides of the argument on a scale to see which would win, which would weigh more: the beneficial effects of breastfeeding or the potential harm of contaminated milk? It appears preferable to encourage mothers who can't stop using marijuana to continue breastfeeding while making every effort to reduce her use and minimize the baby's exposure to marijuana smoke. Her marijuana use should be minimized as much as possible to avoid potential health repercussions to her child and also because marijuana may impair her judgment and ability to care for her child.

Will a child's growth be affected by mother's marijuana use while breastfeeding? One prospective study in a middle-class Canadian population found no effect of maternal marijuana use during lactation and breastfeeding on the child's growth and weight gain over time.

What if the father is the one who uses marijuana? Some evidence shows that a father's use of marijuana may increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in breastfed infants.

In Conclusion: Is Marijuana Use by Breastfeeding Mothers Safe or Not?

The truth is, we don't have enough information to answer this question responsibly. Statistically speaking, the data available is not strong enough to conclude whether marijuana use is safe for lactating moms and their babies or not. Until there are more reliable and rigorous studies performed, mothers will have to talk to their doctors and decide for themselves what to do.

In making that decision, it might be helpful if you ask yourself these questions:

  • Would you drink alcohol or take prescription drugs, knowing that these substances will be passed along to your breastfed child?
  • Do the benefits of using the marijuana outweigh the possible long-term negative effects on your baby's development?
  • Are you willing to take personal responsibility for the possible negative repercussions of your marijuana use?
  • If you are using marijuana medically, is there no substitute medication available that would be less likely to contaminate breast milk?
  • Is your marijuana use something that you are in control of? Are you sure you aren't addicted?
  • Do you believe the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the risks of exposing your baby to marijuana?
  • Most experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, advise nursing moms to abstain from marijuana while breastfeeding. Are you willing to ignore that advice?

If you answered "no" to any of these questions, then choosing not to use marijuana while breastfeeding is probably the best course of action for you and your baby.

What do you think?

Would you use marijuana while breastfeeding?

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Did you breastfeed while using marijuana?

If so, what were the results?

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Sources and Disclaimer

Sources

Cannabis Use While Breastfeeding

The Risks Of Smoking Pot While Breastfeeding

Disclaimer

Information presented in this article is not meant as a substitute for professional judgment. You should consult your doctor for health and breastfeeding advice. We assume no liability or responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the information on this site.

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    • profile image

      Elizabeth 2 years ago

      www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/8121737/

    • Farawaytree profile image

      Michelle Zunter 20 months ago from California

      Great hub!

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