Updated: Mar 10, 2020
As a breastfeeding mother, you want to ensure everything you put into your body is safe for your baby as well. With the burgeoning legalization of marijuana across the country, the question often comes up as to whether marijuana use is safe for breastfeeding mothers. With so many changes to marijuana laws across the United States, “weed” remains prohibited in just a small handful of states. Currently, recreational marijuana is legal in 11 states plus the District of Columbia. Does legalization mean marijuana is safe for nursing mothers and their babies? Let’s take a look.
Women and Marijuana Use
As marijuana has become more accessible, we’ve seen some dramatic shifts in usage. In the years between 2001-2013, marijuana use has more than doubled. We can only assume with broadening legalization in many states that these numbers have grown even more. Whether used medicinally or for recreational use, most consider the decision to use marijuana in any form to be a personal one.
A change in trends has been in marijuana use by women. More women are using marijuana at least occasionally, with the most substantial subset of the demographic being women of childbearing age. The “natural” image of marijuana leads some to believe that it’s completely safe, even while pregnant or breastfeeding. From what we currently know, this isn’t necessarily true.
What Science Says About Marijuana and Breastfeeding
Marijuana, while natural, contains lots of chemicals. Many of these chemicals aren't ideal for introducing into your body; however, the average adult size body can metabolize many of these chemicals over time. Unlike alcohol and tobacco, there are limited studies that look at the long term effects on the body. There are limited studies that look at the impact of marijuana use at all. What we do know is that when you use marijuana, whether ingested or smoked, the chemicals (primarily THC) take longer to leave your body than other commonly consumed substances.
When a nursing mother drinks alcohol or takes a medication that might pass through to the breastmilk, the general advice is to wait for the substance to be metabolized and then pump or express the “tainted” milk before nursing baby. An issue of concern with marijuana use is that there’s an incredible range of reported metabolism rates. In some instances, THC has been shown to clear the mother’s body in as little as a few days, while others show metabolites present weeks after use. Not knowing how long THC remains in your system makes it challenging to ensure baby won't ingest breastmilk that contains THC and other compounds found in marijuana.
This brings us to the next question of just how much THC can a baby ingest from its mother’s breastmilk. If you’ve ever asked a doctor about a medication you're taking or researched on your own the safety of a drug, you’ve probably noticed that as you metabolize a substance, only a certain percentage of it reaches your breastmilk. Just like you, your baby is only going to metabolize a specific portion of what she consumes.
Studies have shown that breastfed infants are exposed to 2.5% of the maternal dose of marijuana. Is this enough to affect baby, and if so, how dangerous is it? Honestly, the studies on this are somewhat limited. However, there is enough evidence to conclude that maternal marijuana use isn’t the best thing for the baby. For instance, depending on how it’s consumed, marijuana can release chemicals into the air that can be inhaled into the baby's lungs. It isn't just absorption from breastmilk that’s a concern.
One study compared the development of breastfed babies whose mothers smoke marijuana compared to those whose mothers abstained. At one year of age, there were some minor delays in motor development, although there was no notable difference in cognitive development.
There has also been a small study conducted that made a connection between babies who consumed THC laced breastmilk and an increased risk of SIDS. Again, this was a small study, but one that should be considered none the less. Furthermore, you’re not going to find an official, reputable source that fully supports marijuana use by pregnant or breastfeeding mothers.
Special Considerations for Breastfeeding Mothers
Of course, it’s shortsighted to put all nursing mothers into the same category concerning marijuana use. We know that breastmilk offers significant advantages for babies and young children. However, for nursing mothers who are using marijuana medicinally, it becomes necessary to weigh the risks against the benefits. Doing so might also include seeking a source or method of intake that minimizes exposure to THC and other chemicals. If you’re using marijuana medicinally, it's essential to speak with your doctor about alternatives or ways to reduce your intake.
There is one more significant issue to consider, and that’s the legalities and stigma that surrounds marijuana use. While marijuana may be legal for both medicinal and recreational, this isn’t the case in every state. Furthermore, marijuana is considered an intoxicating substance. A nursing mother who frequently indulges in marijuana faces the same risk as a mother who regularly indulges in alcohol or other substances. If you’re using marijuana medicinally and have spoken to your doctor about using while breastfeeding, keep a record of any conversations with your doctor, should it ever come into question by an outside party.
A Few Final Words
There certainly are more damaging things in life that marijuana and society is slowly beginning to eliminate the stigma. However, just because marijuana use is becoming more widely accepted doesn’t equal it being safe and acceptable for pregnant or nursing mothers. If you have a medical need, including anxiety or postpartum depression, please speak with a doctor you trust.
If marijuana is strictly something you indulge in because you enjoy it, the best advice is to save it for when you and your baby have completed your breastfeeding journey. The bottom line is that there is still a lot we don’t know about the long term effects on the developing baby or child, and in most cases, it simply isn't a risk worth taking.
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Brown, Q. L., Sarvet, A. L., Shmulewitz, D., Martins, S. S., Wall, M. M., & Hasin, D. S. (2017, January 10). Trends in Marijuana Use Among Pregnant and Nonpregnant Reproductive-Aged Women, 2002-2014. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5595220/
Cannabis. (2019, February 7). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK501587/
These states now have legal weed, and which states could follow suit in 2020. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/where-is-marijuana-legal-in-2020-illinois-joins-10-other-states-legalizing-recreational-pot-2020-01-01/