Is it safe to consume weed while breastfeeding?
More mothers are being open about cannabis use, but more research is needed to determine the safest approach to using cannabis while breastfeeding.
As cannabis legalization spreads throughout North America, the stigma associated with this long prohibited plant is beginning to fade. With more people opening up about their personal experiences with use–whether for medical or recreational purposes–cannabis is becoming normalized as a part of everyday lifestyle. However, numerous questions remain, and for pregnant and nursing women, many are wondering whether cannabis, like alcohol or caffeine, will be considered a no-no.
Still, many mothers find cannabis to be a helpful source of relief during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Marissa*, 30, of New York, is one of them. Marissa gave birth to her son when she was 21, and as both a young mother and a seasoned cannabis smoker (she has been smoking weed since she was a teenager) she continued her consumption until her second trimester because it helped her sleep and eased her nausea.
“I had a terrible time sleeping and don’t like taking melatonin,” says Marissa, “To me, there wasn’t another option.” She’s not alone with this decision. According to a federal report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the number of pregnant women in the United States who use cannabis increased from 2.4% to 4% from 2002 to 2014 (it’s worth noting that this research relied on women to report their own use, so it’s likely that the figures may be even higher than reported).
Marissa cut down to once or twice a day during the beginning of her pregnancy and with interest of maintaining the purest means of consumption, ensured her method was paper-free (many brands of rolling papers contain bleach, which is harmful to both human and environmental health). Once she reached her second trimester, she quit altogether because she was afraid cannabis might show up in her blood work results and cause alarm from her doctor.
A few months after her son was born, while Marissa was breastfeeding, she slowly returned to her cannabis habits. “I only told a few close friends because there’s definitely a stigma,” she said.
“The thing is, there’s no definitive answer as to whether or not it’s safe to consume cannabis while breastfeeding,” says Matthew Mintz, MD, primary care doctor and cannabis expert in Bethesda, Maryland.
Little research exists that examines the physiological relationship between breastfeeding and cannabis use and in particular, whether it causes neurological damage to infants. Therefore, according to Mintz, avoidance is best. He compares it to drinking a glass of wine during pregnancy–as there’s no particular health benefit, why choose to consume and potentially risk dangerous side effects?
But the growth of the medical cannabis industry presents a different case. As more and more people choose medical cannabis to address a variety of ailments for therapeutic relief, the question of whether it’s safe for breastfeeding mothers to use cannabis remains unresolved. “The problem is that we do not have sufficient data to prove one way or another,” says Mintz.
Some facts do exist. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the primary psychotropic cannabinoid (i.e. chemical compound) found in many strains of cannabis and is responsible for the psychological and physiological effects on your mind and body. According to Paula Williams, MD, of Apollo Cannabis Clinics, once consumed by breastfeeding mothers, THC enters the bloodstream and, according to existing studies, tends to concentrate in breast milk.
“THC is stored in the mother’s fatty tissues (the source of breast milk) for weeks to months and the concentration builds up with continued use,” says Williams. Therefore, it’s plausible to assume that THC could transfer to an infant and potentially affect the development of their brain and nervous system. However existing studies that have examined the relationship between cannabis exposure and infants is inconsistent. “Some [studies] suggest delayed motor development, but other studies have found no adverse effects,” says Williams.
However, unlike alcohol and coffee, as the era of cannabis legalization opens new doors of understanding, the wide diversity of cannabis strains–the plant contains over 100 different chemical compounds!–presents an extensive range of physiological and psychological effects. This suggests that more “traditional” cannabis strains that contain higher quantities of THC may pose more of a risk to an infant’s neurological development, in comparison to other strains that are dominant in non-psychotropic compounds.
For example, Cannabidiol, better known as CBD, is a non-psychotropic compound that has a more opposing effect to the “buzz” of THC. Instead, CBD contains anti-inflammatory, anti-depressant, anti-psychotic, antispasmodic, analgesic and neuroprotective properties that are being increasingly leveraged in the highly regulated medical cannabis industry.
What does this suggest? Depending on the strain and consumption method, the health risks of cannabis and breastfeeding could vary dramatically. However, in lieu of having available peer-reviewed research to verify various claims, it is wise for parents to tread cautiously, speak with medical experts and be mindful of safety issues that could pose risks to infant development.
By Christina Heiser
*Name has been changed to protect their identity.
Van der Pop does not endorse or condone the illegal consumption of cannabis. This article is not meant as medical advice. Prior to using cannabis for medical purposes, please consult your physician.