Using marijuana while pregnant raises risk of children developing sleep problems

BOULDER, Colo. — It’s become common knowledge that smoking and drinking can have harmful side-effects during pregnancy. Although the use of marijuana is gaining acceptance in several U.S. states, a new study warns this shouldn’t be seen as a green light for expecting mothers. Researchers say using marijuana while pregnant can greatly increase the risk of children developing sleep disorders after birth.

Researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder reveal these children have trouble waking up in the morning and suffer from excessive fatigue during the day. Previous studies suggest a link between prenatal marijuana use and other developmental issues. This study is the first to show a connection to long-term sleep problems.

“As a society, it took us a while to understand that smoking and drinking alcohol are not advisable during pregnancy, but it is now seen as common sense,” says senior author John Hewitt in a university release. “Studies like this suggest that it is prudent to extend that common sense advice to cannabis, even if use is now legal.”

Mounting evidence of marijuana’s effects

The Colorado team says their evidence comes from the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) study. The report gathered information on nearly 12,000 children between the ages of nine and 10 and followed them into adulthood.

The ABCD questionnaire delves deeply into each mother’s pregnancy. It looks at 26 different issues ranging from their marijuana use to their child’s sleep habits growing up. Researchers say 700 mothers report using marijuana during their pregnancy. Of that group, 184 admit they used it daily and 262 say they used it multiple times a day.

Among the sleeping issues the survey looks for includes how easily the child falls asleep, how long they sleep, snoring, problems with frequently waking up in the night, and sleepiness during the day.

“Mothers who said they had used cannabis while pregnant were significantly more likely to report their children having clinical sleep problems,” UC Boulder researcher Evan Winiger says.

The link may be even stronger than reported

The Boulder team says the ABCD study has lots of data, but moms may not be painting a perfect picture. They suspect pot’s negative effects on pregnancies might be even greater, saying there’s still a stigma about using marijuana.

“We are asking mothers to remember if they smoked marijuana 10 years ago and to admit to a behavior that is frowned upon,” Winiger explains.

The new study notes several other reports which show sleep-related issues tied to marijuana use, especially in kids. One finds children around age three wake up more during the night after in-utero marijuana consumption. Another study by CU Boulder reveals teenagers who frequently smoke marijuana are more likely to develop insomnia as adults.

Is THC causing all this sleep trouble?

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the ingredient that triggers marijuana’s psychological effects. Studies on animals find THC and other cannabinoids can attach to CB1 receptors in the brain. These receptors influence the brain regions that regulate sleep.

The ABCD study is continually taking brain scans of the participants, but CU Boulder says it’s too soon to know if THC is the true cause of sleep disorders.

“This study is one more example of why pregnant women are advised to avoid substance use, including cannabis,” Hewitt warns. “For their children, it could have long-term consequences.”

The research appears in Sleep Health: The Journal of The National Sleep Foundation.

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