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Exposure to THC in breast milk may not harm infants right away, study finds

Experts remain unsure about the long-term effects related to mothers who use marijuana

Woman holding marijuana joint
Photo (c) Jamie Grill - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from the American Academy of Pediatrics explored the health risks associated with infants’ exposure to marijuana through their mothers’ breast milk. According to their findings, premature infants showed no short-term health risks when their mothers breastfed and tested positive for THC

“Providing breast milk from THC-positive women to preterm infants remains controversial since long-term effects of this exposure are unknown,” said researcher Dr. Natalie L. Davis. 

“For this reason, we continue to strongly recommend that women avoid marijuana use while pregnant and while nursing their babies. Our study, however, did provide some reassuring news in terms of short-term health effects. It definitely indicates that more research is needed in this area to help provide women and doctors with further guidance.” 

What are the risks?

For the study, the researchers analyzed medical records of more than 760 preterm infants born between 2014 and 2020. The team tested all of the mothers for THC and monitored the infants’ health outcomes. They compared results from infants given THC-positive breast milk with those who were given either formula or breast milk from THC-negative mothers. 

Ultimately, the researchers learned that all of the infants involved in the study experienced similar health outcomes, regardless of their mothers’ THC status. The researchers tracked the infants from the time they were born until they were allowed to be taken home, and all of the key health markers -- feeding habits, breathing difficulties, and lung development -- were comparable.

While nearly 20% of the mothers tested positive for THC at the time of delivery, there were no significant short-term health challenges identified. The researchers hope more work is done in this area to better understand the potential long-term effects of marijuana exposure in women’s breast milk. 

“Teasing out the effects of THC can be very difficult to study,” said Dr. Davis. “We found that women who screened positive for THC were frequently late to obtain prenatal care, which can have a detrimental effect on their baby separate from marijuana use. This is important to note for future public health interventions.” 

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