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Marijuana, Pregnancy & Breastmilk: Getting Closer To Answers

In this blog article, I use the terms marijuana, cannabis or pot interchangeably, as do most people.

At this time, there is no FDA approved indication for cannabis use as a medical treatment. The FDA gives approval to drugs only when the manufacturers of those drugs have gone through all of the required testing, have met the standards for safety, and have shown that it works when treating specifically named conditions. Marijuana has not met these standards. However, there are two FDA-approved drugs that contain man-made (synthetic) forms of marijuana. These medications, dronabinol and nabilone, are used to treat nausea caused by cancer medications. Neither one has been studied in human pregnancy, so we do not know how safe they are if taken during pregnancy.

What do pregnant women, doctors and teratogen specialists, like myself, want to know about cannabis use during pregnancy?

  • We know that the developing baby is exposed to drugs, medications, infections and chemicals in the mother’s blood. Pregnant women, their health care providers and researchers want to know the differences in the amounts of the drug that reach the blood when cannabis products are used topically, when they are ingested and when they are smoked.
  • We also want to know the risks associated with each type of exposure and the doses that are associated with the risk. For example, what is the difference in risk if a pregnant woman smokes pot once a day (a hit or two or more) vs. smoking pot once a week (one hit or two)? What about if she ingests the drug? What is the difference in risk to her developing baby?

It used to be that teratogen specialists like me were mostly concerned about the risk for birth defects, such as cleft lip and palate, or heart defects. However, now we know that for some drugs, the risks are not specific just to the baby’s structure, such as development of limbs. Instead, some drugs, like alcohol, affect development of the baby’s brain and therefore the effects on the child’s learning and behavior might not be noticed until much later. We need studies that follow children exposed prenatally to marijuana, in all its forms and at a range of doses, so that we can better inform pregnant women if their babies have risks for learning or mental health problems.

What the Available Studies Do Show
The few studies that have focused on birth defects like heart defects or cleft lip and palate have not found a specific pattern of birth defects linked with marijuana when it is smoked. This does not mean that we know for sure that the drug does not ever cause birth defects. What it could mean is that the risk may be small or there is an increased risk only at higher doses or more frequent use. Larger and better studies are needed to determine if there is or is not an increased risk. We do not know for sure yet, and studies are continuing.

Many of the studies have continued to report a higher risk for low birth weight babies, preterm delivery, babies that are small for gestational age and higher rates of admission to intensive care nurseries for babies born to women who smoke marijuana during pregnancy. All of these complications are important and associated with serious health risks for the newborn baby. They could require a longer hospital stay, medical treatment and in some cases, could result in life-long disability. Prematurity, regardless of the cause, is associated with a higher risk for apnea, bleeding in the brain, lung problems (breathing problems), intestinal problems, a higher risk for infections and other problems. Studies continue to look at the issue of complications from smoking pot during pregnancy.

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