Using marijuana while pregnant: What are the risks?

What are the risks of using marijuana during pregnancy.
Marijuana may have adverse effects on neurological development in the developing fetus.

Marijuana doesn’t have nearly the same stigma it did even just a few years ago. Several states have legalized the substance, and more are likely to follow suit.

As a result, usage is rising in the general population, including among pregnant women. A lot of women wonder if smoking weed – or consuming marijuana in another form – is OK during pregnancy.

While estimates are tricky, four to 10 percent of women currently report using marijuana while pregnant. This is a definite increase from the past – and the actual percentage is probably higher because of a self-reporting bias. Think about your answers when we ask you how much you smoke, drink, exercise, or weigh!

But just because using marijuana is more socially or even legally acceptable does not mean it’s safe for your unborn child.

Effects on fetal development

Although a lot more research needs to be done on the effects of marijuana on babies in utero, the initial findings are not reassuring.

THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, acts on a receptor in the brain that is present as early as 14 weeks of gestation – the end of the first trimester. It does cross the placenta and reach the developing fetus. Fetuses are exposed to about 10 percent of the THC that mom takes in, whether by ingesting edibles, smoking, or vaping. It is also stored in maternal fat for weeks, increasing exposure to the developing fetus for a long time after the actual consumption.

Studies have linked marijuana use during pregnancy to possible neurological impairments. Children exposed during pregnancy generally have shown higher rates of difficulty in speech and cognition, lower math scores, lower spelling scores, and higher rates of focus and attention problems.

THC has also been connected to lower birth weights (an important health indicator for newborn babies) and lower muscle tone and tremors in newborns.

While it’s important to note these initial studies and their results are not conclusive, recent research has been discouraging enough that the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advises against using marijuana while pregnant. Because THC can be found in breast milk, the American Academy of Pediatrics also discourages use of marijuana while breastfeeding. 

Turning to marijuana as medicine

Many women who use marijuana during pregnancy report being recreational users prior to becoming pregnant and turning to the drug to help deal with some of the unpleasant side effects of pregnancy.

A recent study showed that marijuana use is much more frequent in the first trimester than later in pregnancy. One explanation may be that women are using marijuana to reduce nausea and vomiting that occurs early in pregnancy.

For nausea and vomiting, there are many prescription medications and non-medical treatments that are safe to take during pregnancy. To alleviate physical discomfort and pain there are many other options to consider such as massage, physical therapy, and pregnancy bands – all of which have been proven to help.

Marijuana may also be used to control pregnancy-related pains, and to manage anxiety and stress. These are all very real pregnancy symptoms, but marijuana is not the best way to treat them. 

Pregnant women are at higher risks for depression than people in the general population, but marijuana is not a treatment for this illness. Better alternatives include counseling, behavioral therapy, and safe prescription medications. 

Talk to your doctor before you become pregnant if you use marijuana, even occasionally. They will help you get off it and find safe alternatives to reduce anxiety or alleviate normal discomforts of pregnancy. It will also help you find longer-term solutions that will be effective for you and safe for your baby.

In my opinion, using marijuana during pregnancy simply isn’t worth the risk.

For more information about pregnancy, labor, and delivery, sign up to receive Your Pregnancy Matters email alerts when we publish new stories. You can also make an appointment to see one of our specialists by calling 214-645-8300.

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