Every new parent struggles to navigate what is safe to eat and drink while lactating. And if you’re a mom who uses cannabis, particularly for medicinal purposes, the question of when you can start consuming it again after pregnancy is particularly pressing.
Many parents assume the rules around using cannabis during lactation mirror the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines around using alcohol: while it’s better to abstain, using it in moderation and timing consumption appropriately around feeding sessions likely won’t hurt. But with cannabis, it’s a little more complicated than that.
According to cannabis clinician Dr. Leigh Vinocur, using cannabis during lactation can actually put your baby at risk of becoming high from breast milk.
“We know cannabis is very lipophilic – meaning it passes the blood-brain barrier easily. And if something crosses the blood-brain barrier, it’s going to cross into the placental barrier, and it’s also going to get into breast milk,” Vinocur said. “It doesn’t take a lot of cannabis for a child to become intoxicated, so theoretically the baby could experience a high from the cannabis you consume.”
The danger in this? Well, it’s unclear.
Vinocur said a baby who somehow becomes high on cannabis will usually just sleep it off. If a baby somehow ingests cannabis through edibles or breast milk, generally the only time parents would seek medical attention is for medical emergencies like if the child become unresponsive, stops breathing, stops eating for a long period of time, or if their lips become blue.
Alcohol can also make its way into breast milk, but the long-term effects of cannabis are far less researched than alcohol. There are very few studies on how cannabis affects a child’s brain, but much of the little research that has been done shows cannabis has the potential to inflict irreparable damage if consumed before age 21. Some studies suggest cannabis could hinder neurocognitive development and executive function in children, and there is a possibility that the brain’s endocannabinoid system (the part of the brain that regulates and balances appetite, memory, and immune response, among other important bodily functions) can also be affected by the drug if used at a young age.
Because of the possibility of these long-term affects on infants, and because of all we don’t know on the subject, Vinocur advises her patients to abstain from using cannabis during pregnancy and lactation if at all possible.
“Even spicy food can affect a baby’s health when you’re breastfeeding, and we don’t have enough data on cannabis to rule out some really terrible consequences of the drug on children’s health. So why risk it?” Vinocur said. “That’s how I feel as a doctor and as a mother.”
But for some mothers, cannabis use is non-negotiable. Women suffering from severe forms of epilepsy may be putting their own lives and the lives of their newborns at risk by abstaining from medical marijuana.
In extreme cases like this, Vinocur advises carefully weighing the risks of use, as well as exploring other options.
“You have to weigh the risk and the benefits, and consult a medical professional before making a decision,” Vinocur said. “We don’t have clear-cut data on what conditions require medical cannabis, so you have to consider for yourself: Is this going to positively affect my parenting? If you decide you must use cannabis during lactation, I’d recommend considering formula.”
Elissa Esher is Assistant Editor at GreenState. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Guardian, Brooklyn Paper, Religion Unplugged, and Iridescent Women. Send inquiries and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.