Smoking Pot and Breast-Feeding: What Are the Risks?

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A new mother in Oregon says she wants to breast-feed her baby even though she regularly smokes marijuana, but experts say they would be concerned about the risks of the drug to the baby's brain.

The mother, Crystal Cain, said she is a medical-marijuana user who smoked the drug during her pregnancy to reduce anxiety and nausea, according to the Portland TV station KATU. Her baby was born 8 weeks premature, and Cain planned on breast-feeding the child because of the known benefits of breast-feeding.

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But doctors at the hospital did not allow Cain to breast-feed until she signed a waiver acknowledging the potential risks of using marijuana while breast-feeding, KATU said.

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"There's not enough information [on the risks] because nobody tests it," Cain was quoted as saying. [Trippy Tales: The History of 8 Hallucinogens]

t's true that few studies have looked at the risks of smoking marijuana while breast-feeding, and many of the studies that have examined this question were conducted several decades ago. However, several organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, discourage the use of marijuana by breast-feeding mothers, in part because of concern that the drug may affect the baby's brain development.

What is clear is that the drug can get into breast milk, and into the baby's body.

The active ingredient in marijuana, THC, is fat soluble and can be stored in the fat tissue for quite a while. "Any drug that is fat soluble gets into fat (tissue), and breast milk has lots of fat because that's what's good for the baby," said Dr. David Mendez, a neonatologist at Miami Children's Hospital, who had not treated Cain or her baby. The more marijuana that a woman smokes, the greater the amount of THC in her breast milk, Mendez said.

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Babies who have been breast-fed by a woman who smokes marijuana can have a positive urine test for marijuana for up to three weeks, said Martha Lasley, a lactation consultant from Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Orlando. However, the amount of THC that's transferred to the baby through breast-feeding is not enough to produce a high, Lasley said.

There is also some concern that smoking marijuana can lower women's levels of prolactin, the hormone needed for breast-milk production, Lasley said.

A 1990 study found that a baby's exposure to THC in the first month of life was linked with reduced movement and coordination skills at age 1. Doctors have also observed lethargy, less frequent feeding and shorter feeding times in babies exposed to THC, according to a 2005 review in the journal Canadian Family Physician.