While birth rates around the world have surprisingly declined during the last year and a half of on-and-off lockdowns, something else has increased: the number of women using cannabis while pregnant.
Many women may be concerned about consuming cannabis while pregnant, but the association between cannabis consumption and adverse impacts on development was found to be insignificant. As reported by The Boston Globe, American healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente found a 25% increase in cannabis use among 100,005 pregnancies in Northern California. The finding was reported in a research letter published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) on Sept. 27.
From January 2019 to December 2020, a team of researchers at Kaiser Permanente “examined urine toxicology tests for cannabis from the first prenatal visit for 100,005 pregnancies (involving 95,412 women) at Kaiser Permanente in Northern California…comparing positive tests in the pre-pandemic period with those during the pandemic period.” Of the women studied, 26% were Asian or Pacific Islander, 7% were Black, 28% were Hispanic, 24% were non-Hispanic white, and 5% were other, unknown, or multiracial. Patients had a mean age of 31.
The researchers reported, “Cannabis use among pregnant women is common and has increased in recent years in the U.S. from an estimated 3.4% in 2002 to 7.0% in 2017.” In the year leading up to the pandemic (2019), only 6.75% of the pregnant women were using cannabis during early pregnancy, but during the pandemic, the number rose to 8.14%. According to the research letter, “Results are consistent with the rise in cannabis sales seen in California during the same period.”
Although the study is limited by its examination of patients in California only—where cannabis is legal and widely accepted—it’s hard to ignore such striking statistics. The team did not go so far as to investigate the reasons behind the increased cannabis use but included in its report that pregnant women allegedly tend to use cannabis to relieve stress and anxiety. Given the additional stressors surrounding the pandemic on top of normal pregnancy anxieties, the increase in cannabis use makes perfect sense.
According to Healthline, stress can be dangerous during pregnancy because the body thinks it’s in fight-or-flight mode from the surge of stress hormones. Some chronic stressors that can lead to pregnancy complications include big life changes, long-term hardships, disasters, exposure to racism, and general fear surrounding pregnancy and labor. While chronic stress can seriously affect the mother, it can impact the baby’s stress management system as well.
In its article “Stress and Its Effect on Your Baby Before and After Birth,” Healthline clears up the misconception that stress can cause preeclampsia, a complication that affects blood pressure and organs. However, stress can lead to short-term spikes in blood pressure, alongside an increased risk of miscarriage or preterm birth. Researchers have even found evidence suggesting stress during pregnancy can have long-term effects on the baby. A 2012 study found a higher likelihood of ADHD in children subjected to prenatal stress, and a 2019 study linked prenatal stress and teenage depression.
For many adults, cannabis functions as a harmless recreational substance or a medical treatment, leading to questions about why it would be dangerous to consume cannabis while pregnant. But how does cannabis affect unborn and breastfeeding babies? In the eyes of the Kaiser Permanente research team, “Prenatal cannabis use is associated with health risks, including low infant birth weight and potential effects on offspring neurodevelopment.” The report goes on to assert that doctors should be educating pregnant women about the harms of prenatal cannabis use and encouraging other forms of stress relief.
However, the jury is still out on this one. Even as some medical experts remain averse to the phenomenon, there are stories of pregnant women successfully using cannabis to treat pregnancy-related symptoms and conditions without causing any problems in their infants. Because so many studies on cannabis use and pregnancy are not comprehensive enough to provide conclusive findings on their own, a group of researchers conducted a review of results from hundreds of relevant studies and found little to no association between prenatal cannabis use and cognitive deficits.
More research is needed to make definitive assessments about the nature of cannabis use while pregnant, so it’s important for every person to make an informed decision on the matter according to their unique needs. While some find crucial relief in cannabis medical treatments during pregnancy, cannabis use may not be worth the risk for others. If you are pregnant and interested in exploring cannabis use to nausea, anxiety, stress, or pain, talk to your doctor before diving in.
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