The number of women who admit to using marijuana/cannabis while pregnant nearly doubled between 2002 and 2017. In that year, it reached an astonishing 12% in the first trimester and 7% overall. Experts suggest that number is likely even higher, especially when measured using drug testing data rather than self-reporting. In fact, researchers have found that 20% of pregnant women under the age of 26 are ingesting some form of marijuana regularly throughout their pregnancy.
These statistics reflect the growing acceptance of marijuana use in North America as a whole. However, while the long-term effects of marijuana use on the general population may be debatable, the same is not true for its impact on a growing fetus.
Many of these effects are long term and irreversible. Here is what you need to know about marijuana and pregnancy.
Medical Uses During Pregnancy
Some women use marijuana to alleviate the effects of morning sickness. Despite support on various social media platforms and other websites, there is currently no scientific evidence supporting the use of marijuana to curb morning sickness. Regardless, the potential risks of its use far outweigh any potential benefits, so experts suggest seeking a safer cure for morning sickness. The same is true for marijuana’s use for other medical conditions.
Due to the increasing evidence of risk associated with marijuana use during pregnancy, all credible medical organizations recommend that pregnant and breastfeeding women avoid using marijuana altogether. These include the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada and the World Health Organization (WHO). Many of these organizations also urge women to avoid the use of marijuana while attempting to become pregnant.
How Marijuana Passes to Your Baby
THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, crosses the placenta and makes its way to the baby’s bloodstream. As much a 30% of the THC in a mother’s system can reach the baby in this way and an infant, particularly a fetus, is much more vulnerable to the effects of toxins and chemicals like THC than adults are.
The risk isn’t just to the fetus. There is also evidence that marijuana use can cause long term damage to a child.
Short Term Effects on the Fetus
Marijuana use during pregnancy can put a fetus in jeopardy both before and immediately after birth. There is, for example, an increased risk of transfer to neonatal intensive care units (NICU) for babies exposed to marijuana in utero. Some of the other potential threats to the fetus and newborn can include:
- More than double the rate of preterm birth
- Increased rates of placental abruption
- Lower birth weights
- A decrease in liver and brain growth
- Lower five-minute Apgar scores (less than 4 out of 10). The five-minute Apgar scores measure how well a baby is doing out of the womb. A healthy baby will typically score 7-10.
- Increased irritability in newborns
- 2.3 times greater risk of stillbirth
Symptoms of Withdrawal
Symptoms of withdrawal have also been noted in newborns whose mothers have ingested marijuana during pregnancy. These symptoms include an abnormal response to stimuli, trembling, as well as excessive and high-pitched crying. Other symptoms of withdrawal can include:
- Blotchy skin coloring
- Abnormal sucking reflex
- Hyperactive reflexes
- Increased muscle tone
- Poor feeding
- Rapid breathing
- Sleep problems
- Slow weight gain
- Stuffy nose and sneezing
Long Term Effects on Children
The effects of marijuana that begin with a fetus can also extend well into childhood and beyond. Marijuana use in pregnancy has also been associated with developmental and physical impairments in growing children who were exposed in utero. One recent study in Canada concluded that “in utero exposure to cannabis has been associated with long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes that can persist into young adulthood.” “Pregnant women,” they added, “should be counselled regarding these risks and encouraged to abstain from use.”
While research has often produced conflicting data, specific studies have identified a variety of other risks of using marijuana while pregnant. These risks include:
- Problems with higher-order thinking during childhood, including problem-solving, memory, planning, attention, and impulse control
- Lower academic scores once the child reaches school age
- Development of hyperactivity disorders
- Possible links to higher rates of autism
- Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
Associated Risks of Marijuana Use
In addition to the direct risks of marijuana use, there are additional risks that pregnant women should consider.
- Increased risk of falling due to dizziness
- Increased risk of falling due to impairment
- Poor judgment due to impairment
- Possible breathing problems or lung damage if marijuana is ingested by smoking
All of these risks have the potential to harm both mother and baby.
More research is necessary, particularly given the growing acceptance in the use of marijuana, both recreationally and medically. However, the research suggests that pregnant and lactating women should avoid marijuana use wherever possible. The bottom line: Although the analysis is still incomplete, no amount of marijuana is considered safe for pregnant or breastfeeding women, so it is best to err on the side of caution and avoid it altogether if you are either pregnant or breastfeeding.