During pregnancy, expectant mothers are advised to eat well, get regular check-ups and avoid unhealthy habits such as smoking, drinking alcohol and using marijuana. Avoiding unhealthy habits is also a good idea while breastfeeding.
Because smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of pregnancy complications, many women choose to quit before they become pregnant or as soon as they learn the news. Since drinking during pregnancy can increase the risk of birth defects and the results of marijuana use have not yet been extensively studied, expectant mothers usually abstain. After giving birth, however, mothers may wonder whether they can breastfeed and occasionally indulge in one or all of these habits.
Women who quit smoking while pregnant may be tempted to resume the habit after giving birth, but it’s important to resist that temptation. Tobacco smoke contains 7,000 chemicals, of which 70 are known to cause cancer. Not only is it unhealthy for the smoker, but also chemicals such as nicotine, arsenic and carbon monoxide can be transmitted to a baby through breast milk. Nicotine consumption in breastfeeding mothers has been associated with colicky behavior and sleeplessness in newborns.
New mothers should not be the only ones not smoking in the home. Exposing infants and children to secondhand smoke is associated with a greater incidence of health problems. Studies show that secondhand smoke increases the likelihood of more frequent and severe asthma attacks, respiratory infections, ear infections, and a higher incidence of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) even recommends that mothers change their clothing before breastfeeding if they have been exposed to secondhand smoke.
Mothers who smoke also provide an unhealthy example, and are more likely to have children who grow up to smoke.
During pregnancy, women are advised to abstain from alcohol completely, but breastfeeding mothers are allowed to consume small amounts of alcohol occasionally. If a breastfeeding mother has an alcoholic drink, a small percentage of that alcohol will wind up in her breast milk. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests that breastfeeding mothers consume no more than 0.5 gram of alcohol per kilogram of the mother’s body weight. The AAP also suggests not breastfeeding or pumping breast milk for at least two hours after drinking alcohol to minimize the effects of the alcohol.
Research suggests that babies whose mothers consume more than one drink a day could have developmental problems and altered sleep patterns. Drinking alcohol regularly may also result in mothers producing less breast milk. Breastfeeding mothers used to be encouraged to drink alcohol to stimulate milk flow, but recent studies show that maternal alcohol consumption can actually inhibit milk production.
Marijuana consumption, for medicinal or recreational purposes, is now legal in several states, but the effects of maternal marijuana use on breastfed infants has not yet been comprehensively studied. A few studies were done about a decade ago, with varying conclusions. There has never been a study to assess the long-term health effects when babies are breastfed by a regular marijuana user.
Here’s what scientists do know: When a mother uses marijuana, it winds up in her breast milk. TetraHydroCannabinol (THC), the active substance in marijuana, has been detected in the urine of babies whose mothers smoked while breastfeeding. THC can linger in fat tissues for up to a month and the more a mother smokes, the more THC is in her breast milk.
While studies could not confirm that maternal marijuana use harmed babies, the studies were limited. There’s still a lot to learn about the possible interaction between a baby’s developing brain and maternal marijuana use. As a result, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists discourages the use of marijuana by breast-feeding mothers. Smoking anything around an infant is not recommended because it exposes infants to secondhand smoke.
Breastfeeding mothers who find it difficult to quit smoking, or to limit their alcohol or marijuana use, may want to talk to their healthcare providers about practical options for quitting or minimizing use.