These days, many adults smoke marijuana. Given the fact that more people in society have changed their opinion regarding the divisive drug, there may be more on the rise. Whether it's smoked for medical or recreational purposes, its use continues to increase. When it comes to smoking marijuana for medical reasons, there are many- cancer, migraines and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are just some of them. It's clear that marijuana has garnered plenty of users.
But its use during pregnancy and nursing has arguably garnered the most amount of controversy. When it comes to the latter, there appears to be a ton of questions surrounding just how safe it is to use marijuana while breastfeeding. Unfortunately, researchers have revealed that a lot of science regarding this subject just isn't in yet.
"We are just at the beginning of our learning about what marijuana is all about and how it works and where it goes, and we just don’t have enough good science on it yet," explained Thomas Hale, associate dean of research at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and author of Hale's Medications and Mother’s Milk.
According to Hale, there are two questions that researchers are looking to answer about marijuana use and breastfeeding. The first question is "Does marijuana get transferred into the breast milk?". One study from May of 2018 looked into whether or not tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the breastmilk of women who used it. The results revealed that while THC was detectable in breastmilk, it was only at a concentration of roughly 2.5 percent of what the mother had taken. However, chronic marijuana users took longer to achieve a THC level that's undetectable, with total elimination taking upwards of four days to complete.
"The baby has to absorb [the THC] orally from breast milk and it is very poorly absorbed, maybe 1-5 percent," Hale added. "So if the mother... transfers 2.5 percent to her milk, only 1-5 percent [of that] is going to be absorbed by the baby. You can see how the dose is actually getting lower. For the majority of subjects in that study, after 24 hours of abstaining from cannabis, they had undetectable amounts of THC in their breast milk, which came back down to nearly the baseline at four hours after consumption. So in the same way we talk about alcohol—you know, if you want to drink a beer while you are chestfeeding your baby, then you drink that beer and then wait two hours until you feed that baby again—I think we can have a similar conversation about cannabis."
The second question is "Does marijuana exposure have a negative effect on babies?". Experts say that if a mom's breastmilk has traces amounts of THC and is then consumed by their baby, it could negatively affect their development. Cannabinoids such as THC go into one's bloodstream, which then affects the brain. The most noticeable part of the brain it affects is the prefrontal cortex, which isn’t fully developed until you're 25 years old. But it's unclear if the possible risk of cannabinoids outweighs the benefits that come with breastfeeding. Though it's worth pointing out that marijuana accumulates in breastmilk due to how fatty it is. THC is stored in adipose tissues— not fat cells—and that's then separated from the milk ducts.
"One of the questions I get a lot is that 'breast milk is full of fat, and babies are full of fat, and THC 'loves' fat [meaning THC is lipophilic, or can be stored in body fat], so it is going to accumulate or concentrate in breast milk. And that is patently untrue, that is just a false statement," explains Heather Thompson, Deputy Director at Denver-based birth rights organization Elephant Circle.
If you smoke marijuana and plan to breastfeed, take all necessary precautions for your baby's sake. Smoke infrequently, and wait anywhere from 24 hours to four days to allow your body to metabolize THC prior to breastfeeding. While more research needs to be done on this particular subject, it's best to do the above in order to be safe than sorry.