Trained in dentistry, Sree is currently studying lab sciences. She enjoys researching various health topics and writing about her findings.
What Is Marijuana Used For?
The medical uses of cannabis, which had been used as medicine since 2900 BC until its criminalization in the 1920s and 30s, are now being reexamined.
Cannabis 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 the therapeutic effects of cannabinoids for nausea and vomiting in many illnesses like cancer and AIDS. Controlled studies demonstrate that cannabinoids may be useful in the treatment of asthma and glaucoma, as an appetite stimulant, anticonvulsant, anti-spasmodic, and as 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 cannabis.
Marijuana use, in both the short and long term, also has a long list of negative side effects, including addiction or dependency, respiratory problems, and 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. Cannabis 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 cannabis, what are the effects on her breastfed baby?
Do the possible benefits of THC outweigh its possible harms?
These are excellent and very important questions. 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.
Who Consumes Cannabis?
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 their assumptions about it, and more places across the United States are legalizing 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 used cannabis, and the age group that reported the highest level of experimentation with marijuana were the 30-49 year-olds, where 49% reported trying it.
Why would breastfeeding mothers use cannabis or THC?
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 (they use it to ease the process) or it 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.
THC Effects on a 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 cannabis 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 cannabis a woman uses, the greater the amount of THC in her breast milk.
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What research has been done on the effect of THC on 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 THC-exposed children was slightly reduced, especially in those children whose mothers reported smoking cannabis 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, cannabis should not be smoked in the vicinity of infants.
How is Breast Milk Affected by Marijuana Use?
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 cannabis have tested positive for THC in their urine for up to 2 to 3 weeks after drinking the breast milk.
What about breast milk production?
Using cannabis also seems to affect 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 means 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 cannabis use on women's milk production.
How long does THC or marijuana stay in breast milk?
It might take between 5 to 12 days for the THC to be eliminated from the body, but since THC is stored in fat tissues (and breasts are composed largely of fat tissues), it's hard to say, for sure. It depends on three things: the frequency and amount of use of cannabis, the mother's metabolism, and the baby's.
If I use marijuana, do I have to feed my baby formula?
If the mother is only using cannabis occasionally, some experts recommend "pumping and dumping" that milk for 24 hours after use and feeding the baby formula, instead. Other experts disagree and say that there's no evidence to support the idea that breast milk will harm the baby.
However, because of the cumulative effect of THC storage in fat, most experts agree that if the mother uses cannabis frequently, breastfeeding is not recommended.
More Questions About Smoking Marijuana While Breastfeeding
Can marijuana affect a mother's ability to nurse her child?
Cannabis 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 their 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 the 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 uses marijuana?
Some evidence shows that a father's use of marijuana may increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in infants.
How Safe is Marijuana Use by Breastfeeding Mothers?
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 cannabis 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 THC 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 THC?
- Most experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, advise nursing moms to abstain from cannabis 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?
Did you breastfeed while using marijuana?
Sources and 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.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Sree Lakshmi
Farawaytree on October 07, 2015:
Elizabeth on August 31, 2014: