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THC and Breastfeeding: Everything You Need to Know

Study Finds The Main Active Ingredient of Cannabis Can Remain in Breast Milk for Six Weeks

August 13, 2021
Alexandra Ross

A lot is known about smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol while pregnant or breastfeeding. Many studies have been conducted, finding unequivocally that the use of these drugs is harmful for pregnant mothers and their babies. 

However, the same has not been true for another controversial, increasingly common drug: cannabis. While some states have legalized cannabis for medical and/or recreational use, it remains illegal at the federal level. This greatly limits research options.

Nonetheless, what we have heard from scientists about cannabis use while pregnant or breastfeeding is alarming. This drug may cause significant impediments to the healthy development of your baby. The concerns with cannabis essentially center on one key ingredient: THC.

A hand holding a marijuana leaf
Cannabis is commonly recognizable by its five-point leaves. This is the part of the cannabis plant that is smoked — the stalks, stems, and seeds are used for non-drug-related hemp products.

What is THC?

THC, short for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, is the main active ingredient found in cannabis. It is a psychoactive compound that produces much of the “high” felt by cannabis smokers. 

THC was first discovered and explored by Bulgarian chemist Raphael Mechoulam in 1964. He found that when the compound was smoked, it gets absorbed into the bloodstream and travels to the brain, attaching itself to endocannabinoid receptors in the brain. Specifically, the cerebral cortex, cerebellum, and basal ganglia — responsible for thinking, memory, pleasure, coordination, and movement. 

Medically, THC is used to treat pain, glaucoma, insomnia, low appetite, nausea, and anxiety. It is also sometimes used recreationally — legally in some U.S. states, illegally in others — because of its relaxing and euphoric effects. It can be consumed via smoking, which is most common, or by eating or drinking cannabis-infused products.

Despite its medical and recreational uses, THC isn’t without its drawbacks. In the short term, it causes increased heart rate, coordination problems, dry mouth, slowed reaction times, memory loss, and anxiety (cannabis can either cause or treat anxiety, depending on how an individual reacts to it).

Regular long-term use can have even more serious side effects. Those who consume large amounts of THC are more likely to experience long-term negative psychiatric effects. In addition, overuse of cannabis can lead to memory problems, impaired immune system, or respiratory issues. 

A woman smoking and looking directly into camera, the smoke swirling around her head in the light of the nearby window
Many people smoke tobacco or cannabis to reduce stress and anxiety. Finding other, healthier, coping mechanisms for these feelings may help you to quit successfully.

Using Cannabis During Pregnancy

Many studies have been done exploring the use of alcohol and nicotine during pregnancy. The results of these studies are indisputable and universal: drinking and smoking are bad for pregnant women, and especially bad for their babies. However, not as much research has been conducted on the impact of cannabis until recently.

In April, a study was published which explored the impact of cannabis use on pregnant women and their babies. It found that prenatal cannabis use was associated with higher odds of serious negative neonatal outcomes. This included greater odds of preterm birth, low birth weight, and death within one year of birth. Children of cannabis users have also been found to be more impulsive and hyperactive, exhibit behavioral issues, and have lower IQ scores and memory problems.

This is alarming, as cannabis use during pregnancy has increased significantly in the United States — most likely because of medical and recreational legalization efforts across the nation. As a result, the neurological and physical development of many babies will be harmed. These effects could last for a long time. 

“A child who has problems with high-order thinking, emotional control, and executive functioning... those are problems that are going to follow them their entire life,” said Tessa Crume, a researcher at the University of Colorado.

Ingesting THC during or soon after your pregnancy can be harmful in other ways. Your impaired cognitive functioning could lead to poor decision-making and lessen your ability to care for your baby properly. 

A group of gummy bears next to a marijuana leaf on a purple background
While THC is most often consumed by smoking cannabis, it can also come in other forms. Any cannabis product that contains THC — including edibles, oils, and vapes — could be harmful to your baby.

Using Cannabis While Breastfeeding

Research on the impact of cannabis on breastfeeding babies has been lacking, in large part because of the federal prohibition of cannabis itself. The ambiguity around this issue, and the fact that prenatal cannabis use is so detrimental to fetuses, suggests that a more conservative approach with cannabis use is safest. 

As a result, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine have all recommended against cannabis use while breastfeeding. 

Finally, in March of 2021, JAMA Pediatrics published a study from researchers at the Children’s Hospital Colorado that will shine a light on this underexplored issue. The researchers recruited adult women who had a history of cannabis use during pregnancy, had intention to breastfeed, and were willing to abstain from cannabis for six weeks. 

The study found, by collecting samples of milk, blood, and urine, that THC can be present in breast milk for up to six weeks. All of the women screened still had detectable levels of THC in their breast milk at the study’s end. 

The study did not aim to find the impact of cannabis on babies. Instead, it revealed that quitting THC use early and consistently is extremely important in reducing your baby’s exposure to the dangerous compound.

This was the first study examining THC content in breast milk and plasma since 1982, a fact which only highlights the need for further investigation of cannabis’s impact on mothers and babies.

A young mother embraces her healthy baby
Though it may be difficult, staying away from cannabis during your pregnancy and breastfeeding period is incredibly important for your baby’s health. 

Cannabis is becoming increasingly accepted by both state governments and general society in the U.S. As a result, many are left wondering if it is safe to use cannabis while pregnant or breastfeeding. The answer, based on current research, appears to be a resounding no.

THC content in breast milk can be both long-lasting and damaging to your baby. If you currently use cannabis, and are pregnant or plan to be in the future, quitting is the healthiest option for you and your child.

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