Every mother of a newborn baby may be familiar with one common fear in the back of their mind: SIDS. There’s no way to tell when a baby is susceptible to sudden infant death syndrome. While a few risks like sleeping position and tobacco use have been identified, what about marijuana? Can marijuana increase the risk of SIDS? Here’s the scoop on the common thoughts on the matter.
What is SIDS?
Any mother of an infant is probably well aware of SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. This terrifying sounding medical condition is aptly named; SIDS is the unexpected and unexplained death of an infant under one year of age.
Unfortunately, there are no known causes of SIDS. The syndrome has been a medical mystery for centuries. Though, in recent years, the rates of SIDS in the United States have been declining. There is no way to prevent SIDS or predict when it’s likely to occur. What is known is that SIDS typically happens sometimes during sleep. SIDS strikes most often between the second and sixth months of age. Prior to falling victim to the syndrome, infants don’t usually show any signs of being ill. They typically eat normally and fall asleep just fine, only to be found later without a pulse and not breathing.
Any child can fall victim to SIDS no matter how attentive of a parent you are. One of easiest ways to reduce the risk of SIDS is to make sure your baby’s breathing is not obstructed during sleep, and to ensure that your child is in the proper sleeping position when you put them down for the night. That means laying them on their backs, not their stomachs.
Recent studies have found that male babies are at the greatest risk of SIDS, though it’s unclear why. Though SIDS continues to puzzle the medical community, leading research suggests that there seems to be some connection between the infant’s ability to produce serotonin and SIDS. Serotonin is a necessary neurotransmitter that’s partially responsible for controlling the baby’s ability to rouse itself from sleep.
In the event that something is blocking the baby’s airways (be it excess fluid, clothing, or a lack of breathing room while the baby is on its stomach), the brain needs serotonin pathways to function properly to alert the baby’s body to take action and rouse itself to fix the issue.
While issues in the brain are thought to play a part in SIDS, there are several environmental factors that are thought to influence the condition as well. Though it’s been difficult to prove or evaluate thus far, some medical professionals believe that marijuana use may be a risk factor for SIDS. Though, current research has left quite a bit to be desired as far as firm information goes.
Here are some of the current findings about marijuana and the risk of SIDS:
While no one knows for sure what exactly causes SIDS, poor air quality has been thought to contribute to the phenomenon. Because SIDS is associated with issues like lack of oxygen and being unable to breathe properly, second-hand smoke of any kind is thought to contribute to the syndrome. Being exposed to excess marijuana smoke, like tobacco, may deprive the baby of oxygen. This leads to increased risk of SIDS.
In a 2013 review on prenatal drug use published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, AAP researchers explain
[….] smoking marijuana produces as much as 5 times the amount of carbon monoxide as does cigarette smoking, perhaps altering fetal oxygenation.
Though this statement refers to a potential harm in the womb, it speaks to a growing infant’s need for access to plenty of oxygen. A fetus needs oxygen in order to develop properly. It’s well known that smoke from cigarettes either directly or secondhand can temporarily limit the amount of oxygenated blood that reaches the fetus. If deprived of oxygen for too long, major development issues like cerebral palsy and even stillbirth can occur.
Likewise, the US Center for Disease Control has cited that certain chemicals in secondhand smoke seem to “affect the brain in ways that interfere with its regulation of infants’ breathing.”
Though marijuana itself is quite different from tobacco, the smoke caused from combustion still contains many of the same chemicals as traditional cigarettes. For this reason, smoking marijuana around a newborn is thought to increase the risk of SIDS.
Obviously, this can be avoided by stepping outside to smoke or switching to another form like edibles.
Watch out dads…?
Oddly enough, one early study found a link between a father’s marijuana use prior to conception and an increased risk of SIDS. The study was published in 2001, and it examined 239 SIDS infants between 1989 and 1992. The research found a significant correlation between the father’s marijuana use before conception, throughout his partner’s pregnancy, and post-birth.
When the study was first published, lead researcher Hillary Klonoff-Cohen discussed the possible reasons behind these peculiar findings with HealthDay:
It might be that a large number of men smoked marijuana compared to the women, or they smoked more frequently or for a longer time. They might not be aware that their lifestyle habits can affect pregnancy outcomes. Maybe there are differences between men and women in reporting their use. All of those issues might touch on the reasons why — it’s hard to know.
She also was quick to add a note of caution:
We need to do larger studies, no question. You can’t base advice on one study. The findings are tentative, and we should approach them with caution.
Klonoff-Cohen is right–this study is rather small and the surprising results have yet to be duplicated. At this point, the research is also a little dated. Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this study is again regarding secondhand smoke. It’s unclear why a father’s marijuana use would cause so much issue at the time of conception, but poor air quality associated with secondhand smoke may be to blame.
A report on postnatal cannabis use found in the National Institutes of Health database had this to say on the topic:
Some evidence indicates that paternal marijuana use increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome in breastfed infants. Marijuana should not be smoked by anyone in the vicinity of infants because the infants may be exposed by inhaling the smoke. Because breastfeeding can mitigate some of the effects of smoking and little evidence of serious infant harm has been seen, it appears preferable to encourage mothers who use marijuana to continue breastfeeding and reducing or abstaining from marijuana use while minimizing infant exposure to marijuana smoke.
What about during pregnancy?
Perhaps even more strange, the same 2001 study that suggested a connection between a dad’s marijuana use and SIDS found no correlation between the syndrome and a mother’s marijuana use. As no large-scale studies have been performed on the topic, it’s difficult to say whether or not there’s a correlation between maternal marijuana use and SIDS.
The National Institutes of Health report mentioned earlier suggested that “too few nursing mothers smoked marijuana to form any conclusion” in the Klonoff-Choen study.
Regardless of the lack of firm evidence, many resources still suggest that cannabis use may increase the risk of SIDS. But, is this risk tied exclusively to smoked marijuana? Hardly any research has examined the risk of consuming edibles or marijuana tea rather than smoking the herb. Because of a lack of research, medical professionals urge caution before consuming any marijuana products during pregnancy.
But, this suggestion is often at odds with anecdotal evidence and traditional beliefs about the herb. In Jamaica, for example, it’s not uncommon for women to consume marijuana cigarettes or ganja tea throughout pregnancy.
In the 1980s, Melanie Dreher and a team of researchers followed a group of 44 Jamaican women and their children for 5 years. 24 of the women regularly consumed marijuana during pregnancy. Though the sample size of the study was quite small, none of the pregnancies later resulted in SIDS.
In fact, at 3 months of age, the babies of cannabis users actually performed better on a series of health and behavior tests when compared to non-exposed babies. At five-years-old, there was no developmental or behavioral differences between the two groups showed no developmental differences.
This small, longitudinal study does not adequately address the question of whether marijuana increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome. But, it does suggest that the harms of prenatal marijuana use need to be evaluated in a much more holistic way.
As with pretty much all research on cannabis and pregnancy, it is very difficult to evaluate what the final and longterm risks truly are. Many, many women use cannabis to help cope with difficult symptoms during pregnancy. Throughout the centuries, many healthy babies have been born to marijuana-using mothers.
What do the studies in this article really tell us about the risks? To limit potential causes of SIDS, try to keep your baby’s air clean and oxygen-rich. Other than that? Only more time and comprehensive research will be able to separate fact from fiction about marijuana and SIDS.
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