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Marijuana and Pregnancy: A Growing Problem

According to a recent study, nearly half of American adults support the legalization of recreational marijuana use, and more than 33 million adults reported using it in the past year. With widespread acceptance and increased use, the medical community is taking steps to remind patients about the potential dangers of smoking marijuana, especially in pregnant women and new mothers.

“There is no medically acceptable reason for marijuana use for pregnant or nursing women,” said Denise Ellison, DNP, CPNP, IBCLC, a pediatric nurse practitioner and program coordinator for Newborn Nursery Services and Newborn Center at Abington - Jefferson Health. “Instead, it’s a cause for concern.”

The Information Gap

The number of mothers testing positive for marijuana during drug screens is higher than ever before. Many medical experts speculate that this could be caused by the social support for recreational use, as well as widespread medical marijuana programs, which may leave parents-to-be unclear about the risks.

“Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when we realized that smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol were dangerous during pregnancy, there were studies done, announcements made and education campaigns to spread the word,” said Ellison. “With marijuana, states are just starting to change their laws, and less information is available, so it’s much harder for women to make an informed decision.” Instead, it’s on the individual states to help spread awareness.

Colorado, for example, legalized marijuana in 2014, and since then has developed educational materials and awareness campaigns for at-risk groups such as pregnant women.

Dangers During Pregnancy

You know the old saying: A baby eats what you eat. During pregnancy, the placenta transports oxygen and nutrients to a growing baby. Toxins can also travel through this barrier.

“THC, the component of marijuana that makes a person feel ‘high,’ crosses the placental barrier,” said Ellison. And during this crucial stage of brain development, that chemical may hamper fetal growth and have potentially long-term neurodevelopmental effects.

“THC isn’t good at any time during brain development,” she said. It has been linked to developmental delays, learning deficits and attention disorders.

“The brain continues developing until we are about 20 years old,” said Ellison. “But most of the development takes place in the womb. We worry about what those chemicals are doing to the brain, just like we would cigarette smoke or alcohol.”

THC, Smoke and Your Baby

Even after a baby is born, breastfeeding mothers can pass along the effects of marijuana use.

“THC is fat binding,” said Ellison, “which means it stays in the system much longer.” This also means that it will be highly concentrated in fattier areas of the body, including the breasts. In nursing mothers, this causes a dramatic increase in the concentration of THC being passed to their children while breastfeeding.

“The concentration of THC from breast milk is about six to eight times stronger than what can pass through the placenta,” said Ellison.

According to a recent study, exposure to marijuana smoke may also be linked to an increased risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Making Informed Decisions

Though marijuana derivatives have been linked to medical benefits, experts recommend new parents seek other treatments during pregnancy.

“There have been pregnant women using marijuana to improve appetite and reduce nausea during pregnancy, but there are much safer alternatives,” said Ellison. And users should also be aware of the concentration of THC and unintended additives.

“Marijuana is much stronger than it used to be, and when obtained from illicit sources, there is the possibility that it could be mixed with something more harmful.” Even in the case of medical marijuana prescriptions, most doctors will not prescribe marijuana during pregnancy.

Finally, if a woman is a known or suspected drug user, she will receive a drug screen during her pregnancy, as well as a newborn test after birth. Because use of marijuana still isn’t federally legal, THC’s presence in the mother or baby could result in a report to child services.

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