What We’re Learning About Marijuana Use During Pregnancy

What We’re Learning About Marijuana Use During Pregnancy

There was a time in American history when the sight of a pregnant woman smoking a cigarette wouldn’t make the average passer-by stop and stare. But as our medical understanding of the impact of nicotine on developing fetuses grew, so did our medical guidelines for a healthy pregnancy. Many states have taken steps toward legalizing marijuana at least in part because it is seen as a potential medical treatment for illnesses including nausea and anxiety, which many expectant mothers experience throughout their pregnancy. Is marijuana safe to use during pregnancy?

Asking whether any kind of medication is safe to use during pregnancy is a hard question to answer. Pharmaceutical companies are terrified of taking the risk that a medication they provide to pregnant women will cause birth defects, endanger the life of the fetus or even terminate the pregnancy. The relatively narrow window of time a woman is pregnant, often including a period of four to six weeks in which a woman is pregnant but doesn’t realize it yet, can also make it difficult to test the effects of medication on a woman and her child during this time.

These factors add up to a field of medical research that falls short of the rigorous testing and retesting required to come to a definitive conclusion about the effects of many drugs on pregnancy.  Even now there is no definitive answer for how much Tylenol is safe to take during pregnancy, much less a controversial substance like marijuana.

What research we do have is inconclusive at best and often contradictory or limited in its scope. For example, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis’ School of Medicine recently conducted a review of more than thirty studies that explored the impact of marijuana on maternal and infant health outcomes. Lead author Shayna Conner and her colleagues concluded that based on that body of evidence there was no discernable negative impact on babies and mothers as a result of marijuana use.

While Connor encouraged public health professionals to use these finding as an opportunity to focus more on discouraging the use of substances like alcohol and cigarettes proven to cause significant health issues for infants, some researchers aren’t ready to put the issue to bed. Critics of Connor’s study suggest that many studies that focus on the impact of marijuana use in pregnant women are not thorough enough and fail to effectively separate out other factors like socioeconomic status or co-occurring cigarette smoking habits that can also contribute to a child’s well-being.

Ambivalence in medical findings should be a warning sign for expectant moms, not a green light. Pregnancy can be an incredibly difficult time for women as they experience bodily changes outside of their control and beyond anything they’ve experienced before. Added stress and anxiety caused by a pregnancy, especially if it is unplanned, can make it tempting to fall back on even our most unhealthy coping mechanisms.

If you are pregnant and considering whether or not to use marijuana to cope physical or psychological health issues, keep in mind that medical research has not conclusively shown that marijuana is safe to use during pregnancy. Your pregnancy is the right time to start making careful decisions about your and your child’s health, and marijuana may not be the best choice for you or your baby.

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