Using cannabis while breastfeeding has always been a controversial conversation. Breastfeeding already suffers heavy stigmatization, but throwing marijuana into the discussion is sure to heat the debate even more. Moms cannot even turn to science for comfort, as research results are just as divided as public opinion. Even so, breastfeeding mothers should know a few important facts before lighting up.
Stigma of Marijuana and Breastfeeding
Many challenges pressure mothers these days, particularly first-time mothers and those with newborns. Everyone has an opinion on the subject of their care, especially when it comes to their health and happiness. Those who choose to use marijuana while breastfeeding, and those using it during pregnancy, face the harshest criticism.
A simple Google search about cannabis and breastfeeding will return dozens of answers, not all of them honest, true, or even accurate. The most common claim is that besides the direct effect “being stoned” has on babies, using it may hinder the ability of a mother to care for her infant properly, as the chemicals in marijuana may impair her judgment significantly.
The truth is that there is insufficient scientific evidence to support these claims. The political climate is not friendly towards cannabis research currently, as, under federal prohibition, the plant is not freely available for scientific study and researchers to face limits. However, plenty of anecdotal evidence exists proving the benefits of marijuana during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Available research is itself quite mixed. New studies are disproving almost all claims of the past. For the time being, medical professionals still caution against using cannabis while breastfeeding because the risks and their severity are still under study. Much of the discussion involves the consumption of THC, which is the psychoactive compound in marijuana plants.
However, science is still conducting a study into the effects of other cannabinoids, including the non-psychoactive cannabidiol, or CBD, which is proving highly beneficial in tests conducted thus far. The heightened stigma surrounding the use of marijuana while breastfeeding is, in fact, unproven hearsay. This is what we now know today:
Natural Breastmilk Already Contains Cannabinoids
Cannabinoids occur naturally in breastmilk, as surprising as that may seem. The human body produces them on its own, without the aid of marijuana. The body’s endocannabinoid system produces its own endocannabinoids, which are similar compounds to THC, CBD, and other marijuana-derived cannabinoids, which mothers pass to infants through breastfeeding.
2-arachidonyl glycerol, or simply 2-AG, is the body’s most notable endocannabinoid: It activates the same cell receptors that THC does. These naturally occurring cannabinoids are vital to keeping infants alive. Studies from 2004 show them stimulating suckling action in newborn mice, which may be because endocannabinoids stimulate muscles in the tongue.
Ester Fride, the researcher for the study, said that having cannabinoids in breastmilk might prevent a disease called “non-organic failure to thrive.” It occurs when an infant is unable to consume the food it needs to sustain itself. She called them “extremely vital for proper human development, and in later work, explained the role of endocannabinoids in fetal brain development.
Notably, Fride found these cannabinoids altered in pregnant mothers under stress and crucially important for developing infants. Her studies show that previous expectations of these compounds were woefully inadequate and that they, in fact, play complicated roles in human development. In some circumstances, such as failure to thrive, cannabinoids offer a potential therapy for future treatment.
Baby and THC
Just as babies receive natural endocannabinoids via their mother’s milk, so too do they absorb THC, of which breastmilk contains extremely high quantities of it. THC stores in fat cells, and in heavy users especially, THC levels can measures up to eight times higher in their breastmilk than in their bloodstream. Back in 1982, scientists discovered this fact in an interesting study.
They found moderate, dose-dependent traces in newborns when their mothers where using cannabis while breastfeeding them. In fact, the study suggested that in nursing mothers using moderately, their babies receive approximately .08 percent of the THC dose they consume per weight. Doctors Gideon Koren, Myla Moretti, and Josephine Djulus, articulated in a 2005 literature review:
“With chronic use, THC can accumulate in human breastmilk to high concentrations. Because a baby’s brain is still forming, THC could theoretically affect brain development. It is also important to avoid environmental exposure to maternal marijuana smoke. Nursing mothers should receive appropriate services for counseling.”
Decent evidence also indicates that newborns metabolize THC, although the implications of the compound’s metabolic process are yet unknown. Published by the Journal of Toxicology in 2009, a literature review explained that newborns tested positive for THC in urine samples up to three weeks after drinking breastmilk from mothers consuming marijuana.
Benefits of Marijuana for Baby
THC can make babies sleepy and less focused on vital tasks, but there is no indication that other cannabinoids affect babies negatively in any way. In fact, non-psychoactive cannabinoids, such as the well-known cannabidiol compound, are highly beneficial for all aspects of human development. Because THC is psychoactive, however, the medical community remains wary about its effects specifically.
Currently, there is insufficient information to draw conclusions about the overall effects of cannabis breastmilk on healthy, thriving infants. We do know that non-psychoactive cannabinoids are crucial for medical, emotional, and physical development, but because THC can make babies sleepy instead of alert and learning, it may be wise to choose cannabis products high in CBD and low in THC.
The consensus is for nursing mothers to stop or reduce consumption of THC while breastfeeding, and to switch to CBD products during pregnancy until the child weans. The National Institutes of Health also recognize that the potential dangers of using marijuana during breastfeeding remain unclear. In its database, it provides a detailed explained, summarized in this paragraph:
“Because breastfeeding can mitigate some of the effects of smoking, and little evidence of serious harm has been seen, it appears preferable to encourage mothers who use marijuana to continue breastfeeding while minimizing infant exposure to marijuana smoke and reducing marijuana use.” In other words, cannabis is beneficial provided you do not smoke around the baby and do not use heavily.
To Do or Not To Do?
Information on cannabis and breastfeeding is scarce at best. While research concludes that mothers can pass THC to suckling infants via breastmilk, exact implications remain undetermined. However, we do have many, many women around the world giving testimony of their use of cannabis during pregnancy, breastfeeding, and beyond to manage morning sickness, stress, and mental worries.
In a Ladybud editorial, one such mother, Jeanna Hoch, shared her story. She said, “Cannabis saved my pregnancy with my son, made my pregnancy with my daughter tolerable, and helps me in my day-to-day life. I do not care if you believe me. I care that you leave us alone. I know what cannabis has done for me, and I know women that credit cannabis as their savior too.”
Of its stigma, Hoch said, “I also know women forced to stop breastfeeding. I know women forced to take parenting classes. I know women that have had their children removed from their home. If you are a nasty critic, you may be wondering how my ten-year-old son, a product of my first pregnancy in which I chose cannabis over Phenergan and Zofran to treat hyperemesis gravidarum, turned out.”
Proudly, Hoch spoke of her success, “I am proud to report this year he enters fifth grade, beginning his fifth year as an HGT-identified, or ‘Highly Gifted and Talented,’ student.” The world is harsh for canna-mothers. Hoch’s story resonates with a study conducted in the early 1990s by Jamaican researchers. Although breastfeeding was not the study’s focus, it provided interesting results.
The team found no differences in motor or cognitive functioning between children raised on marijuana-infused breastmilk and those who were not. However, it did find that the cognitive success of a child relied heavily on his or her access to frequent schooling and a mentally stimulating environment. The study ended when participants turned five-years-old, providing no information on long-term effects.
Cannabis loving women, however, face immense risk if they continue using while breastfeeding, not from the effects of the weed itself, but from severe legal consequences and crippling social judgment. According to Hoch, social services insisted on drug testing both her and her newborn daughter immediately after birth, causing a confrontation during this vulnerable time.
A mother from Oregon, Crystal Cain, signed a waiver before she could take her infant home. She had to sign the disclaimer stating that she knew the risks involved with breastfeeding her child while she was using medical marijuana, despite ambiguous evidence of any associated health risks. If there is one takeaway to take, it is that research is sorely lacking on the effects of THC on developing brains.
However, we know that other cannabinoids in medical marijuana are hugely beneficial, even crucial, for infant development. Many nursing mothers use cannabis preparations to cope with the symptoms of pregnancy, both during and after, and while breastfeeding. Science is still probing its long-term impact on infants, but emerging studies and anecdotal evidence is largely at odds with its negative reputation.