Breastfeeding is incredibly valuable – that much should go without saying. Not only does it form an important maternal connection between child and mother, but breast milk contains essential nutritional defenses that a child needs to develop and grow.
But with an increasing number of pregnant women using cannabis, the question is being asked: is it ok to use medical marijuana while breastfeeding?
Read on to find out…
Understanding the Advantages of Breastfeeding
Most people know breastfeeding as the process of nursing babies with milk from a mother’s breast. However, it’s a little more complex than that.
After a woman gives birth, levels of estrogen and progesterone begin to drop, but prolactin levels rise. These changes in hormonal output signal an increase in breast milk production. Most new mothers will produce breast milk in the first week or so, without needing any prompt – this stage is known as lactogenesis II.
But this isn’t sustainable for the body.
After a week or so, breast milk is developed based on a supply and demand process. High levels of prolactin and oxytocin are continually made based on specific pituitary gland activity. Prolactin encourages the breast glands to produce milk, while oxytocin allows the alveoli to release fluid from the milk ducts.
In terms of timescale, breastfeeding typically begins from birth to whenever the mother chooses to stop the supply and demand chain. However, complications can reduce breastfeeding time – or they can halt it altogether.
As far as whether or not breastfeeding is advantageous, most health organizations (including WHO and UNICEF) suggest that it is. But why is this?
Why Do Women Choose to Breastfeed?
Women’s bodies are biologically designed for breastfeeding. This is no “evolutionary accident.” The act of breastfeeding possesses significant emotional and biological implications, which are important for both mother and baby.
Positives of breastfeeding for babies include:
- Reduced risk of future cardiovascular disease and obesity
- Improvement in cognitive development
- Smaller risk of developing asthma, food allergies and type 1 diabetes
- Reduced cases of diarrhea and vomiting
- Superior formulation, including nutrient-rich colostrum and essential minerals
- Encourages baby and mother bonding
- May prevent SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome)
Positives of breastfeeding for mothers include:
- Decreased chance of postpartum depression
- More affordable than infant formula
- Less blood loss after delivery
- Decreased risk of breast cancer and rheumatoid arthritis
Potential Challenges of Breastfeeding
Despite the many positives associated with breastfeeding, some women may still encounter obstacles. These could include:
- Judging a baby’s milk consumption becomes difficult
- Constant feeding, irrespective of time
- Discomfort during the first few weeks
- Limitation on substance use; caffeine, alcohol, and medications
Experiencing breastfeeding challenges doesn’t reflect a mother’s competency. In fact, many of these issues are typical, especially for new mothers. However, some of these problems are considered ‘choices’, and medical marijuana is one of them.
So, why would any mother choose to use medical marijuana while breastfeeding?
Medical Marijuana & Breastfeeding
The most common reason a woman would consider using medical marijuana while breastfeeding is a pre-existing condition.
Marijuana has a complex chemical structure which is made up of hundreds of cannabinoids. These cannabinoids all interact with something called the endocannabinoid system. This system exists within the body and influences things like metabolism, immune function, memory, and many more biological functions.
The relationship between marijuana and the endocannabinoid system has led many states to legalize the compound in particular instances. Some of the most common qualifying conditions for marijuana use are:
- Multiple Sclerosis
DID YOU KNOW? Many professionals advocate not using marijuana while breastfeeding.
Women who use medical marijuana for any one of these conditions may find it a daunting task stopping medication because of pregnancy.
But while medical marijuana may have been a sensible choice of medication pre-pregnancy, this may not be the case during or after. In fact, professionals strongly advocate not using marijuana while breastfeeding. Here are some of the reasons why.
The Risks of Using Medical Cannabis While Breastfeeding
When it comes to postnatal marijuana-use, the biggest concern centers around THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and its metabolites. Certain metabolites, such as THC-COOH, circulate through the bloodstream and are stored in body fat. Since breast milk contains high volumes of saturated and unsaturated fat, THC finds its way into this fluid.
So, how does this impact nursing?
- A Decrease in Milk Production: Some studies have made the connection that THC suppresses prolactin production. Prolactin is an essential hormone for nursing mothers as it encourages the glands to create milk. This becomes a serious issue if a newborn is not satiated with each feeding. And interestingly, a survey conducted in Colorado, between 2015 and 2016, found that women using cannabis both before and after birth breastfed for a shorter length of time.
- Slow Weight Gain: Marijuana use may affect a baby’s weight gain and physical development. The compound THC has shown to make newborns sleepy and fatigued, and therefore likely to suckle less milk.
- Stunted Development: The first few months of life are pivotal stages in brain development. Some studies have made a correlation between THC exposure and brain cell metabolism. This may leave long-term neurodevelopmental effects on the child, which affect strength and movement.
Final Thoughts on Medical Marijuana and Breastfeeding
Breast milk is a life-giving fluid; it contains all the essential nutrients that newborns need. And it’s proven almost impossible to replicate in any man-made baby formula. But there is still much to learn about prenatal exposure to THC, primarily through lactation.
For the time being, marijuana use during breastfeeding is mostly discouraged. The ACOG, or American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, has advised doctors to be vigilant in discouraging marijuana use during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
If a condition becomes unmanageable without medical marijuana use, it’s recommended to visit your GP or doctor to discuss possible alternatives that may be safer.