The Health Risks of Smoking Marijuana and Breastfeeding

Mom breastfeeding on a bed

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Marijuana, also known as cannabis or weed, is the most commonly used illegal drug and many women use medical marijuana for recreational use in states where it is legal as well. Although generally considered a "harmless" or "soft drug," there are risks associated with marijuana use.

Parents need to be cautious about exposing their baby to marijuana smoke or to breastmilk if the mother has been consuming marijuana. Research has been studying the effects of marijuana and breastfeeding and the findings are very interesting.

The Breast Is Best Philosophy

The Breast is Best message is one that new moms often receive and with good reason. A 2012 policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics reviewed the evidence on breastfeeding.

The AAP concluded that given the short-term and long-term medical and neurodevelopmental advantages, breastfeeding should be promoted as the norm to new parents. For example, there is a 36% lower risk of SIDS when babies are breastfed.

The stereotype of the new mom and the stereotype of the chronic marijuana user don't align very well. Everyone wants to be seen as a good parent. Physicians don't want to upset a pregnant woman or one who has recently given birth. They often don't even bring up the subject of drug use if a woman doesn't look like the "type" who would use drugs.

Given this fact, many physicians do not routinely ask pregnant women or mothers whether they use marijuana. Far less advise them not to breastfeed because of it. The discomfort around the implications of whether a drug-using woman should even be caring for her own child would make many new parents either avoid the question or give the expected answer — that they do not use marijuana.

Tip: The stigma around marijuana use and the universal promotion of breastfeeding may get in the way of getting accurate advice on breastfeeding from your doctor.

Breastfeeding and Marijuana

Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug among pregnant and breastfeeding women. Probably because of stigma, we don't hear the same public health messages about marijuana use as we do with substances such as alcohol and nicotine.

Yet, the same policy statement advocating for breastfeeding actually cites marijuana use as a contraindication for breastfeeding, meaning that women who use marijuana should not breastfeed. A number of studies support this view.

If you smoke marijuana, you should not breastfeed.

What Marijuana May Do to Your Breastfed Baby

More research is needed to accurately predict the effects of a mother's marijuana use on children who are breastfed, but there are some risks we know about from research:

  • Effects on the Brain and Nervous System: As a psychoactive drug, marijuana has a direct effect on the brain and nervous system. Babies who are breastfeeding are still rapidly developing, so using marijuana while you are breastfeeding increases the risk of impaired brain and nervous system development.
  • Mental Functioning: Executive functioning can be damaged by early exposure to cannabis. This includes flexibility in thinking, being able to pay attention for long periods of time, and being able to hold information in "working memory." 
  • Emotional Regulation: Early exposure to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, has been found to cause long-lasting changes in the emotional reactivity of children.
  • Risk of Drug Use Later: There is some evidence from animal studies that early exposure to cannabis increases the reinforcing effects of other drugs, such as opiates. Although more research is needed to confirm this, it is well-known that substance use runs in families. If you are using cannabis, exposing your baby to the drug through breastmilk may increase the risk that your baby will go on to use drugs — possibly even "harder" drugs than marijuana.

Early exposure to marijuana is associated with a range of short-term and long-term mental, emotional, and behavioral problems.

The Bottom Line

The best thing you can do to protect your baby from the potentially harmful effects of marijuana is to quit and make sure no one smokes marijuana, or any substance, around your child.

If you can't quit, don't breastfeed — marijuana sticks around in the body much longer than most other drugs. You can express and discard your milk if you plan to breastfeed once you are clean.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; 2017.

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Breastfeeding. Breastfeeding and the use of human milk. Pediatrics. 2012;129(3):e827-e841. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-3552

  3. Ip S, Chung M, Raman G, et al. Breastfeeding and maternal and infant health outcomes in developed countries. Evid Rep Technol Assess . 2007;(153):1-186.

  4. Ryan SA, Ammerman SD, O’Connor ME, COMMITTEE ON SUBSTANCE USE AND PREVENTION, SECTION ON BREASTFEEDING. Marijuana Use During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding: Implications for Neonatal and Childhood Outcomes. Pediatrics. 2018;142(3). doi:10.1542/peds.2018-1889

  5. Astley SJ, Little RE. Maternal marijuana use during lactation and infant development at one year. Neurotoxicol Teratol. 1990;12(2):161-168.

Additional Reading
  • Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine Protocol Committee. "ABM Clinical Protocol #21: Guidelines for Breastfeeding and the Drug-Dependent Woman." Breastfeeding Medicine 4:225-228. 2009.
  • American Academy of Pediatrics "Policy Statement: Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk." Pediatrics 129:e827-e841.
  • Astley, S. & Little, R. "Maternal marijuana use during lactation and infant development at one year." Neurotoxicology And Teratology 12:161-8. 1990.
  • Bartu, A., Sharp, J., Ludlow, J. & Doherty, D. "Postnatal Home Visiting for Illicit Drug-Using Mothers and Their Infants: A Randomised Controlled Trial." Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology 46:419-426. 2006.
  • Campolongo, P., Trezza, V., Ratano, P., Palmery, M. & Cuomo, V. "Developmental Consequences of Perinatal Cannabis Exposure: Behavioral and Neuroendocrine Effects in Adult Rodents." Psychopharmacology 214:5-15. 2011.
  • Djulus,J, Moretti, M. & Koren, G. "Marijuana use and breastfeeding." Canadian Family Physician 5:349-350. 2005.
  • Djulus, J., Moretti, M. & Koren, G. "Marijuana use and breastfeeding." Can Fam Physician 349-50. 2005.
  • England, L., Brenner, R., Bhaskar, B., Simons-Morton, B., Das, A., Revenis, M. & Clemens, J. "Breastfeeding Practices in a Cohort of Inner-City Women: the Role of Contraindications." Biomed Central Public Health 3:28-37. 2003.
  • Liston, J. "Breastfeeding and the Use of Recreational Drugs -- Alcohol, Caffeine, Nicotine, and Marijuana." Breastfeeding Review 6:27-30. 1998.
  • Wilton, J. "Breastfeeding and the Chemically Dependent Woman." NAACOG's Clinical Issues in Perinatal and Women's Health Nursing 3:667-7. 1992.

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.