Recreational marijuana use becomes increasingly common as legalization spreads across the country. That includes women who are pregnant and women in the months following childbirth. A new study sought to understand why women make certain marijuana use choices, especially within the context of pregnancy and breastfeeding. Their findings surprised them and opened up their minds to the nuanced circumstances that lead women to use marijuana during and after pregnancy.
"We don't have all the research, but there's enough there to warrant saying that you should not use marijuana while pregnant," explained lead author Celestina Barbosa-Leiker. “"Yet, there's a group of women who are using marijuana that have these other chronic conditions, and we need to help them manage those."
The new study focused on one key question: why are pregnant and breastfeeding women continuing to use marijuana when there are concerns in the medical community that this type of exposure can be dangerous to developing fetuses and newborn babies consuming breast milk? Are these women educated about the potential dangers and choosing to use marijuana anyway? Or are they unaware of the potential health issues associated with marijuana use? The study’s results revealed that explanations behind marijuana use in this specific population go beyond simply knowing the risks and not knowing.
For example, some women, despite awareness of potential health risks, chose marijuana use over other solutions for managing health conditions like nausea, pain, sleeping difficulty, stress, and anxiety. This highlights a more careful decision to use marijuana, one often reached as an attempt to avoid opioids and other pharmaceutical medications that also have risks associated with them.
Researchers also found that many pregnant and breastfeeding women experienced mixed communication from doctors. Some healthcare providers failed to provide guidance or support when their patients told them about their marijuana use; some providers didn’t ask in the first place. Regardless of their communication experience with their practitioner, women in the study did show to be interested in receiving sufficient education on pregnancy and marijuana use.
Research has shown that marijuana use during pregnancy is linked to increased risk of low birth weight, still birth, and cognitive and behavioral issues after childbirth. Researchers designed the recent study wanting to know the details of women’s marijuana habits to develop how patient education on this matter can be improved.
The study concluded that healthcare providers may need to improve the way they communicate with patients about marijuana use during and shortly after pregnancy, so that if women do decide to use marijuana while pregnant, it’ll be while knowing what the research says about potential consequences.
Researchers also recommend that practitioners encourage women to gradually limit marijuana use instead of struggling to quit using it suddenly. Doctors should also practice communicating with patients in such a way to minimize the perception of stigma.
"The worst thing that could happen is that one of these moms feels so uncomfortable that she doesn't come back for prenatal care, which is detrimental to the health of the baby,” Barbosa-Leiker explained.