Cannabis and Breastfeeding: What They Don't Want You To Know
By Allie Beckett on June 14, 2016
We’re about to dive into a polarizing topic: cannabis and breastfeeding. I am not a doctor, so I’m not here to give you medical advice. Instead, I’m going to walk you through the various arguments for and against consuming cannabis while breastfeeding and then relay some first-hand testimonials exclusive to Marijuana.com.
The trickiest part about seeking solid scientific data on this subject is that it doesn’t exist. It is considered unethical to conduct studies using illegal substances on pregnant or breastfeeding women. Right now cannabis is considered as harmful as heroin, so laboratories are unable to administer cannabis to nursing mothers for scientific data. This means almost all of the data out there on cannabis consumption during nursing are from random breastmilk screenings rather than controlled studies.
All of the negative press on consuming cannabis while nursing originates on websites with names such as Parents Opposed to Pot, so they’re not exactly unbiased. But hey, we’re on a website called Marijuana.com, so our bias swings slightly in the other direction. There is a lack of scientific data on cannabis in general because it has been illegal for labs to study the plant, so whether we’re talking about cannabis use for epilepsy or for pregnancy we are gathering information more from personal experience rather than hard scientific facts. Anyone who has seen cannabis heal first-hand knows that once the barriers are lowered and scientists can study this incredible plant, there will be plenty of scientific data to support the healing properties. But for now we are reliant on personal experience and because everybody is different, these experiences range drastically.
On one end of the spectrum, there are women who believe absolutely no drugs should be consumed during pregnancy and nursing. On the other end of the spectrum, there are women who believe cannabis helps enhance pregnancy and nursing. In the middle, there lies a curious group of people (including the majority of doctors) who prescribe prescription opioids or other damaging painkillers to pregnant or nursing mothers but adamantly oppose medical marijuana use.
One thing is certain, anything the mother ingests during nursing is transferred directly to the baby via breastmilk. This goes as far as if a mother is eating non-organic meat riddled with antibiotics and chemicals, the baby is absorbing these same harmful compounds. Women are often prescribed opiatesby doctors when they are pregnant; yet most people don’t blink an eye at this even though it has been proven that opiate consumption during pregnancy increases addiction rates for the child.
Most of the arguments against consuming cannabis are specifically directed to the consumption during pregnancy rather than postpartum. It is most common for a mother to wants to use medical cannabis prenatally as a natural alternative to common pregnancy symptoms ranging from severe nausea to pain during labor.
Two of the studies most often cited against the use of cannabis during pregnancy are the Ottawa Prenatal Prospective Study (OPPS) out of Canada and the Maternal Health Practices and Child Development Project (MHPCDP) out of Europe. These studies have been testing children, exposed prenatally to cannabis, in areas such as short-term memory, verbal outcomes, aspects of attention, impulsivity, and abstract visual skills. They found that neurocognitive deficits began to appear after age three and continued into young adulthood…which begs the question what else was the child and/or mother consuming during these three years that could’ve led to these deficits? And if it was cannabis causing these deficits, why did it take three years to show symptoms? The studies found that by age six, “children exposed prenatally to marijuana showed more impulsive and hyperactive behavior.” Throughout adolescence the study showed these children also developed problems with abstract and visual reasoning, which the study linked to affecting the child’s good decision-making ability, organizational behavior, and action to accomplish goals.
Now, on the other side of the argument, proponents of responsible cannabis consumption during pregnancy and nursing often cite a study conducted over 40 years ago by Dr. Melanie Dreher in Jamaica. Her 5-year study included 24 babies exposed to cannabis prenatally and 20 babies who were not exposed. The results of this study showed that children exposed prenatally to cannabis actually excelled and were better adjusted than their unexposed counterpart. The babies who were exposed prenatally to cannabis tested better on “all scales of measure” but particularly with reflexes and autonomic stability which is key for maintaining balance in the body. At the 4-year checkup, Dr. Dreher found “absolutely no differences” between the children whose mothers did use cannabis and children whose mothers didn’t use cannabis. However, Dr. Dreher’s primary source of funding was from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and they were very unhappy with her findings. Dreher said in an interview, “It was clear that NIDA was not interested in continuing to fund a study that didn’t produce negative results. I was told not to resubmit. We missed an opportunity to follow the study through adolescence and through adulthood.” However, she continued talking about this issue and released a book titled Women and Cannabis: Medicine: Science and Sociology if you are interested in reading more in depth about her field studies.
The amount of positive results from responsible cannabis use during pregnancy is astounding but difficult to find because many mothers (especially in the U.S.) are terrified of having their child taken away if they publicly admit to their use of the plant prenatal or even postpartum. I found some women willing to share their experiences, however, their names have been changed to protect their identity.
Montana medical patient, Caitlyn, proudly expressed to Marijuana.com that she used medical cannabis throughout both of her pregnancies. Cannabis was previously part of her lifestyle so she was aware of its effects and benefits on her body. During her first pregnancy, she experienced terrible hyperemesis (severe nausea) and her doctor prescribed her pharmaceuticals such as promethazine, valium, and zofran to treat her symptoms. Thankfully, she had an OB that understood her situation and allowed Caitlyn to treat her severe nausea with medical marijuana rather than pharmaceuticals. Caitlyn explains the outcome, “Two beautiful, healthy children who were not born small, had perfect Apgar scores, no medical problems, and no delay in any developmental skills…if anything the pediatrician says they are ahead!” This wasn’t without fear, however. Right when Caitlyn gave birth she was visited by Child Protective Services because of the THC in her and the baby’s system. After looking into home life, getting to know Caitlyn and her husband and realizing they were both medical marijuana patients, the CPS agent dropped the issue. Though Caitlyn explains, “There are so many parents who are not as lucky.” The CPS agent also explained to Caitlyn that since the baby was born with THC in his system the agency had the right to test him at any point in the first two years and if he tested positive, he would be removed from her care. Caitlyn said, “They consider it like a child having alcohol in their system!” She warned, “a mother who is openly smoking cannabis while breastfeeding, medical card holder or not, is at risk of having her children taken away.”
Another testimonial from Washington medical cannabis patient, Pat, explains “I not only consumed cannabis every day while pregnant but also while nursing him to 6 months. Cannabis helped me with my morning sickness, weight regulation and staying calm although I was 6,000 miles from my mom and surrounded by men serving in the Army in Germany.” She continues, “If there was a negative effect on Kevin, we have yet to observe it throughout the 38 years of his life.” On the contrary, “He was on target or ahead of all milestones, consistently tested well ahead of his peer and has gone on to serve his country, family, and community.” The only negative effect she has noticed is “a much higher tolerance for cannabis than any of their parents.”
Furthermore, another medical patient out of Washington named Erin told Marijuana.com she also used cannabis throughout both of her pregnancies. She says, “Both of our sons are at the top of their classes. We are often told how intelligent and thoughtful they are.” She expressed gratitude and said she “felt lucky to have a doctor that encouraged cannabis use.” During pregnancy, Erin never experienced morning sickness and she continued to work throughout both pregnancies. She admits “I highly recommend it and don’t really care what the general public thinks!” and adds “I have two strong, healthy, smart sons…and in more ways than one, cannabis has kept our family going”
I obtained many similar stories from women that expressed gratitude for cannabis during pregnancy and had their children grow up to be healthy, intelligent adults. Jessica from Washington admitted to smoking very heavily while breastfeeding her daughter for two years and says her daughter was “healthier, potty trained two times faster and has had a better vocabulary at three years old than any child in her class.” Megan from Nevada says she breastfed both her children while smoking cannabis and her kids have “never had an ear infection or any major illness that most children encounter.” Rather, she explains that her son is “smart and at the head of his class.”
Not only do many moms have a positive experience with cannabis and its effect on their children, but almost all of the moms I talked to said it enhanced their own life. Meagan from Washington experienced three traumatic stillborns during her first attempts at having a baby and she says that using cannabis after her fourth and successful pregnancy helped calm her PTSD from her previous losses, she explains that “cannabis helped me relax and create a bond.” Jessica from Washington says that using cannabis while breastfeeding helped her get back to pre-baby weight fast. And most importantly, Megan from Nevada explains that cannabis “made me a better Mom and continues to everyday.”
While this is often a polarizing subject, it is clear that the threat of cannabis comes not from its actual consumption but rather from the government who enforces its prohibition. In other words, more damage is caused to a child by taking them away from their family than from the mother ingesting medical cannabis. Green Party candidate Jill Stein recently said, “Marijuana is a drug that is dangerous because it’s illegal, it’s not inherently dangerous itself.” The fact that women are prescribed and encouraged to take opiates, if needed, during pregnancy but remain at risk of having their child taken away if they choose a natural pain-relief alternative is absolutely backwards and something we seriously need to address as a society.
Allie is a NW-based content curator for Marijuana.com and an organic farmer at TKO Reserve. She has been a professional in the marijuana industry since she was 18 years old, spending the first five years of her career working for Dope Magazine as lead photographer. Allie has worked on mainstream projects such as Idiot's Guide: Growing Marijuana, Branding Bud: The Consumerization of Cannabis and her own self-published book, As The Grass Grows.