Staying Principled

Click here to listen to the blog (3:54).

In 2009 a group of women gathered in Victoria BC Canada to discuss how we would approach the development of a network on FASD prevention. We were researchers, policy advocates, service providers, community activists and those with Indigenous wisdom – all with a commitment to seeing and acting on how social determinants affect women’s health and substance use, and the ability for them influence the conditions of their lives.

Out of our discussion emerged a consensus on 10 fundamental components or principles for approaching FASD prevention from a women’s health determinants perspective. Now, in 2022, we have updated that consensus statement, so that those interested in FASD prevention are directed to new evidence and resources. The update is a testament to the soundness of the original principles and to the ever-growing expertise of the network participants and international partners. We hope this will empower those working on FASD prevention to continue to use and build upon this principle-based approach.

The principles foundational to approaching FASD prevention are:

Respectful – Grounding prevention initiatives in respectful relationships is vital to reduce stigma and discrimination.

Relational – It can be a transformative experience for women who use substances to experience care that aligns with their needs, views them as a whole person, and offers respect, understanding, and authentic collaboration.

Self-Determining Health care and other support systems can facilitate self-determined care by supporting women’s autonomy, decision making, control of resources, and including exercise of their reproductive rights.

Women+ Centred Women+ centered care moves beyond a fetus/child-centered approach, and focuses on fostering safety and empowerment when providing support to women and gender diverse individuals who are pregnant or parenting.

Harm Reduction Oriented A harm reduction oriented approach focuses on safer substance use but also on reducing broader harms, including retaining or regaining custody of children, access to adequate and stable housing, and the challenges of poverty, food insecurity, and intimate partner violence.

Trauma- and Violence-Informed Trauma- and violence-informed services integrate awareness of the impacts of trauma on health into all aspects of service delivery including wellness support and prevention of secondary trauma.

Health Promoting – Holistic, health promoting responses to the complex and interconnected influences on women’s health and substance use are vital to FASD prevention.

Culturally Safe – Respect for individuals’ values, worldviews, and preferences in any service encounter is important, as is respect for and accommodation of a woman’s desire for culturally-specific healing.

Supportive of Mothering – FASD prevention efforts must recognize women’s desire to be good mothers and the importance of supporting women’s choices and roles as mothers.

Uses a FASD-informed and Disability Lens – Uses strengths-based responses, makes person-centered accommodations, and ensures equity of access to health and social services.

We hope you will find the Consensus Statement with these principles and supporting sources – journal articles, reports and infographics – an inspiration for action.

FASD AWARENESS DAY 2022

It’s International FASD Awareness Day on September 9. We have now recognized this Day for over 20 years and it is heartening to see how many organizations and communities across Canada are now offering events and sharing resources that both honour the strengths of those with the disability and build awareness of the risks of drinking alcohol in pregnancy. One notable addition to this year’s events is that many landmarks and monuments across Canada will be lit up in red as part of CanFASD’s campaign, which focuses this year on building strengths and abilities.

As a part of our work to raise awareness about FASD prevention, we have updated an infographic about what we know about alcohol and pregnancy. It is based both in research and in the multi-level work of national, provincial, and local organizations working on FASD prevention. It points to:

  • How women both deserve and benefit from information and support when making decisions about drinking before and during pregnancy.
  • How reducing stigma about drinking is one key way of opening up the possibilities for women to access the information and support they need.
  • How service providers have a prime responsibility in FASD prevention by:
    • Sharing informational materials, working collaboratively, and supporting connections to needed supports.
    • Engaging in non-judgemental and encouraging conversations about alcohol and associated risks.
    • Linking women to community-based programs that offer holistic support on alcohol use, other aspects of health, and practical needs.

The infographic offers links to excellent resources developed by Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, the Saskatchewan Prevention Institute, organizations offering culture driven programming in 7 Indigenous communities, and the Co-Creating Evidence Project’s research on wraparound programming. The Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health is grateful to the CanFASD Research Network for providing the funding that affords us opportunity to bring attention to these FASD prevention efforts in Canada in this way. 

FASD Prevention: An Annotated Bibliography of Articles Published in 2021

This year’s Annotated Bibliography of Articles Published in 2021 was just released and includes 99 articles from 21 countries.

Researchers associated with the Prevention Network Action Team (pNAT) of the Canada FASD Research Network search the academic literature for articles related to alcohol use in pregnancy and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) prevention. Articles are reviewed for relevancy, identified by topic and country, and the findings are summarized.

Countries with the highest number of articles published were the US (36 articles), Canada (17 articles), and the UK (13 articles). The findings were organized using a four-part prevention model used by the pNAT to describe the wide range of work that comprises FASD prevention. This year, 35 articles described the prevalence, influences, and factors associated with alcohol use in pregnancy, nine articles described Level 1 prevention efforts, 26 articles described Level 2 prevention efforts, 7 articles described Level 3 prevention efforts, 8 articles described Level 4 prevention articles, and 17 articles described stigma, ethical issues, and systemic approaches.

In this collection of articles can be seen an increase in attention to women’s views and experiences. For example, a systematic review of qualitative research exploring the barriers and facilitators that influence alcohol reduction, abstention, and use in pregnancy found that social norms and relationships, stigma, trauma and other stressors, alcohol information and messaging and access to trusted and equitable care and resources greatly impacted women’s alcohol use and that structural and systemic factors related to alcohol use were widely underexplored. Another article explored how women make decisions about alcohol use given the conflict information, controversy, and stigma associated with light and moderate prenatal alcohol consumption. The authors found that women’s decisions were influenced by the consistency of messaging they received, their social position relative to the source of information, and the strength of the relationship to the person providing information.

The annual literature search is intended to update those involved in FASD prevention in Canada (and beyond), so that their practice and policy work may be informed by current evidence. The members of the pNAT also have the opportunity in monthly web meetings to discuss the implications of the findings for their work. You can access previous annotated bibliographies from CanFASD’s prevention page or by clicking on the “Maternal Health & Substance Use” topic on the CEWH publications page.

Click here to read FASD Prevention: An Annotated Bibliography of Articles Published in 2021.

Click here to read the Executive Summary.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. US system-level action to institute Plans of Safe Care

Members of the Prevention Network Action Team recently attended a webinar sponsored by the Children and Family Futures Program (CCFutures) in the US. During the webinar, a CFFutures representative shared how Plans of Safe Care (POSCs) were being developed to support women who are using substances during pregnancy and promote mother/child togetherness at the time of delivery.

These POSCs are being instigated by court teams, who convene multi-agency collaborations that include child welfare, substance use treatment and OAT providers, medical/health care providers and children’s services, including home visitation and peer recovery supports.  The peer supports play a key role in engaging families in voluntary services prenatally or prior to child welfare involvement, helping them navigate social services systems, as well as assisting with creating and monitoring the POSC, and providing important insights into barriers experienced by the families.

This POSC approach has the benefits of forging strong and deliberate partnerships across providers and is positively informing child welfare responses to women and infants where there has been prenatal substance exposure. This work to provide organized, trauma-informed and effective care prenatally is preventing removal of children at birth and family separation overall. At the court level, it is integrating a prevention mindset by asking what it would take to maintain the child in the home and ensure that reasonable and active efforts are made to support the woman’s and family’s health. At the community level, it involves the funding of community coordinators to oversee collaboration and implementation, as well as community education and training. It means that there is coordination from pre-to postnatal care, and that continuity of services is provided. And it is reducing NICU stays and the need for pharmacological interventions.

This is an excellent example of system level change to prevent FASD, as opposed to individualizing and medicalizing the response. The leaders cite similar barriers to what has been identified in many locations and in research about system-level barriers including limited staff and system capacity, concerns about confidentiality, stigma, as well as lack of knowledge about POSCs and their benefits – yet they are addressing these.  One of the sites was quoted to say that most of the efforts did not require funding, with the implication that the accomplishments can be sustained in the local systems of care.  Instead of requiring significant additional funding for the POSC work they “required commitment and investment by all involved parties to systems change and improved practices – collaboratively and individually – as providers and entities working with the target population.”

The description of this fine work has echoes in the conversations we at the Prevention Network Action Team have had over the years, and when developing the Mothering and Opioids: Addressing Stigma-Acting Collaboratively resource (see the policy values diagram from that resource below).  Many of us have, and continue to, advocate for and deliver components of this coordinated system level response. The webinar covered the solid evaluation evidence for this type of response in detail, but the big story is that system level can be done that effectively and safely supports women, children and families.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Source: Page 42, Mothering and Opioids Toolkit

Accessing Research to Inform our Practice and Policy

Our annual annotated list of research articles on FASD prevention is now available!

As in past years, we searched academic databases for articles about FASD prevention published in English over the past calendar year (in this case between January and December 2020). We organized the articles using the four-level prevention framework, so that those involved in FASD prevention can easily find and consider how to integrate current evidence relevant to their practice and policy work. 

This year, one hundred and three (n =103) articles were included, coming from 19 countries/regions.

  • 37 articles explored the prevalence of, and influences and factors associated with, alcohol use during pregnancy. Some factors influencing alcohol use in pregnancy described in these articles included depression, partners’ alcohol use, awareness of alcohol harms, awareness of pregnancy status, adverse childhood experiences, availability of support networks, concurrent tobacco smoking, and density of alcohol establishments.
  • 3 articles only focussed on awareness raising (Level 1).
  • 33 articles described aspects of brief intervention, education and support with women in childbearing years and their support networks (Level 2). Mixed results are still seen for brief interventions, but for some subgroups of women and dual interventions (alcohol + contraception) benefits were found.
  • 12 articles explored specialized, holistic support of pregnant women with alcohol and other health and social problems (Level 3), showing the importance of access to these programs and the need for collaboration in their delivery.
  • 7 articles described postpartum treatment and support approaches for new mothers and their children (Level 4), and promising approaches were described that included trauma informed and culturally grounded parenting programs.
  • 14 articles addressed overarching issues such as the impact of stigma, ethical issues and needed systemic approaches.

We encourage all those interested in FASD prevention to check out the articles for the area of FASD where they work, and in other areas of interest. We look forward to discussing key articles in the Prevention Network Action Team (pNAT) monthly web meetings as well. 

The Remarkable Findings of the Co-Creating Evidence Evaluation Study

Preventing Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) requires a range of efforts from general awareness to targeted prevention and treatment services. In the Canadian Four-Part FASD Prevention Model, Level 3 and 4 programs provide low barrier holistic services for pregnant or parenting women who face substance use and a range of other health and social burdens and challenges.

Over a four-year period, the Co-Creating Evidence (CCE) evaluation study has involved eight different community-based Level 3 & 4 programs that support women through the provision of holistic, wraparound services, and in doing so, see FASD prevention as part of their mandate. These programs are guided by theoretical approaches such as being trauma-informed, relationship-based, women-centred, culturally grounded and harm reducing. The evaluation team has been led by the Nota Bene Consulting Group and has involved researchers from the Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health and representatives of the eight programs. 

This CCE evaluative study (2017-2020) has had three main research questions:

  1. What are the common elements of the diverse Level 3 programs across Canada?
  2. What program components are helpful from women’s perspectives?
  3. What are best measures to evidence outcomes and what outcomes are being achieved?

The answers to these questions are now available via:

In all these documents, service providers, researchers, policy makers and women with lived/living experience will see promising approaches and outcomes that these programs provide and the women who access these programs are realizing, together with their community partners. This study makes a significant contribution to our understanding of this level of FASD prevention. It hopefully will be an inspiration to all those committed to this important work. 

Funding for this project has been received from the Public Health Agency of Canada, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) National Strategic Project Fund. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Preconception Care to Optimize Health

Harm reduction and health promotion for women and their partners before conception are key to FASD prevention [1]. Providing health information and supports during the preconception period provides an opportunity for men and women to actively plan for a healthy pregnancy and learn strategies such as healthy nutrition, supplementation, and reducing alcohol and other substance use [2]. Such education and support can contribute greatly to optimizing health and preventing FASD [3].

Around the world, there are examples of unique approaches to preventing alcohol exposed pregnancies. Some interventions are geared towards women and men separately, and others are gender synchronized, creating complimentary programs for men, women, boys, and girls. Interventions may also include both members of a couple and include training for healthcare professionals.

Credit: Pretestie Bestie campaign.

Websites, such as Healthy Families BC and the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada have pages offer information about alcohol use during pregnancy and clear and concise steps to consider before becoming pregnant. The recent ThinkFASD website sponsored by the CanFASD Research Network offers advice both for couples who are consciously planning a pregnancy, and those who are drinking and having unprotected sex. Other websites are interactive, such as Alberta Health Services’ Ready or Not, which allows a woman to click through different resources and prompts based on whether or not she feels ready to become pregnant. Don’t Know? Don’t Drink is a creative campaign in New Zealand, which posts fun, engaging graphics and videos to their social media platforms with messages about using contraception and supporting friends to not drink if there’s a chance they might be pregnant. The campaign caters to younger girls and encourages finding a “Pretestie Bestie”, a friend who supports you and your decision making before getting a pregnancy test, as a strategy of FASD prevention.

Interventions in the preconception period are not limited to women. Paternal drinking can impact men’s safety, sperm health, fetal/infant health, and women’s ability to reduce their alcohol use [4]. Various programs have been geared towards men’s education about contraception options, reproductive health, and how to support partners in their efforts to reduce drinking before and during pregnancy. Project Alpha is an American collaboration aimed at educating boys age 12 to 15 about fatherhood, contraception, healthy relationships, and sexuality.

MenCare+ empowers men to be active and positive participants in their own health as well as the health of their partners and children.  It has been implemented in Brazil, Indonesia, Rwanda, and South Africa and has been shown to reduce intimate partner violence in its participants, which is an important contributing factor to women’s substance use during pregnancy [5]. In addition to programming for men, MenCare also offers workshops and training for healthcare professionals on engaging men in maternal and child health.

The internet has been a preferred source of information when it comes to preconception [6] and for couples who know they want to have children, web-based interventions are helpful tools. The UK’s Smarter Pregnancy program helps couples build a profile through an online health assessment and then offers evidence-based recommendations based on their profile. A similar approach is taken by HealthyMoms and HealthyDads complimentary websites, which were created after asking expectant moms and dads what  information and supports they need to prepare for parenthood.

Culturally safe and non-judgemental interventions have been shown to be effective in reducing the risk of alcohol exposed pregnancies [7]. In the US, CHOICES and Amor Y Salud are interventions geared towards Indigenous and Latinx communities. CHOICES educates non-pregnant at-risk women about contraceptive options and uses motivational interviewing to support women to reduce drinking. Amor Y Salud, available through the Oregon Health Authority Website, offers a radionovela that follows a young couple as they learn how to optimize their health and prepare for future children. In Canada, Best Start’s website has a page for Indigenous prenatal health with information and resources that integrates Indigenous knowledge with Western health information. They also provide resources, such as Planning for Change, to support healthcare providers in educating their patients about FASD and supporting them in making meaningful changes.

The variety of preconception education and support approaches illustrates opportunities for incorporating these initiatives across the various levels of reproductive health. Childbearing years span four decades for women and are longer for men, and interventions have and can continue to focus on those that are planning or not yet planning a pregnancy, as well as for those in the period before a pregnancy is confirmed. When such preconception and early pregnancy supports are well incorporated throughout the healthcare system, this key component of FASD prevention can be realized.

1. Network Action Team on FASD Prevention. (2010). Consensus on 10 fundamental components of FASD prevention from a women’s health determinants perspective. Canada Northwest FASD Research Network.

2. The Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health. (2016). Preconception Interventions Alcohol and Contraception Example. Schmidt, R., Hemsing, N., & Poole, N. Retrieved from http://en.beststart.org/sites/en.beststart.org/files/u4/PC3-Preconception-Interventions-Poole.pdf

3. Webb, Shelby, and Diane Foley. “An Introduction to the Optimal Health Model for Family Planning Clinicians.” National Clinical Training Center for Family Planning, 17 Feb. 2020, http://www.ctcfp.org/optimal-health-podcast/.

4. McBride, N. and S. Johnson, Fathers’ role in alcohol-exposed pregnancies: Systematic review of human studies. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2016

5. Alhusen JL, Ray E, Sharps P, Bullock L. Intimate partner violence during pregnancy: maternal and neonatal outcomes. J Womens Health (Larchmt). 2015 Jan;24(1):100-6. doi: 10.1089/jwh.2014.4872. Epub 2014 Sep 29. PMID: 25265285; PMCID: PMC4361157.

6. Da Costa D, Zelkowitz P, Bailey K, Cruz R, Bernard JC, Dasgupta K, Lowensteyn I, Khalifé S. Results of a Needs Assessment to Guide the Development of a Website to Enhance Emotional Wellness and Healthy Behaviors During Pregnancy. J Perinat Educ. 2015;24(4):213-24. doi: 10.1891/1058-1243.24.4.213. PMID: 26834443; PMCID: PMC4718007.

7. Hanson, J., & Pourier, S. (2015). The Oglala Sioux Tribe CHOICES Program: Modifying an Existing Alcohol-Exposed Pregnancy Intervention for Use in an American Indian Community. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 13(1), 1. doi:10.3390/ijerph13010001


Innu Approaches to Supporting Pregnancy and Birthing

Examples of Holistic FASD Prevention in Practice

Developing specialized, culturally safe, and holistic support for pregnant women is an important strategy in preventing FASD [1]. In Labrador, Thea Penashue and June Fry of the Innu Roundtable Secretariat are bringing Innu midwifery and parenting back to Sheshatshiu and Mushuau Innu First Nations through two initiatives.

Centering Pregnancy was introduced in Sheshatshiu in 2018 to increase access to and use of primary prenatal care. The project was born from dialogues between the Innu Round Table Secretariat, Innu Health Directors, the Regional Health Board, physicians, and public health nurses. Centering Pregnancy is a group pregnancy outreach program where women can access prenatal group education, health assessments, and social support. The program promotes relationship-building by allowing participants to bring supports with them to the group sessions and encouraging discussion and bonding between women within the program. Expectant mothers have autonomy and control in their care in addition to support from a health care worker [2].

The Innu Midwifery Project aims to reintroduce traditional midwifery to Sheshatshiu and Natuashish, drawing on Innu Elders’ knowledge of Innu birthing practices. The project is being done in collaboration with Gisela Becker, the Chief Midwife for Newfoundland and Labrador, to support the training Innu midwives using a culturally-specific, hands-on, individually paced learning approach. Reintroducing midwifery to the Innu First Nations will result in Innu children being born on Innu lands, fostering a greater connection to the land and culture, continuation of cultural practices and culturally safe care, and empowering women in the context of their pregnancy.

Credit: “A Guide to the Innu Care Approach” from the Innu Round Table Secretariat website [5].

These initiatives create a safer environment for Innu women to discuss their health. Based in and driven by the communities and culture, these programs are centered around women, their families, and the communities [3].

Thea Penashue, the Community Wellness Systems Navigator at the Innu Round Table Secretariat, delivered her second child in a tshuap, a traditional Innu tent, in September. She hopes that, through the Midwifery project and Centering Pregnancy program, more Innu women will be able to give birth in a tshuap, connecting to their land, culture, and sense of self as Innu people, in the company of their loved ones [4].

Credit “A Guide to the Innu Care Approach” from the Innu Round Table Secretariat website [5].

1. Canada FASD Research Network’s Action Team on FASD Prevention from a Women’s Health Determinants Perspective, 2013. PREVENTION Of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) A Multi-Level Model. [online] Available at: <https://canfasd.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/PREVENTION-of-Fetal-Alcohol-Spectrum-Disorder-FASD-A-multi-level-model.pdf&gt; [Accessed 24 September 2020].

2. Centering Healthcare Institute. n.d. Centering Pregnancy | Centering Healthcare Institute. [online] Available at: <https://www.centeringhealthcare.org/what-we-do/centering-pregnancy&gt; [Accessed 24 September 2020].

3. Network Action Team on FASD prevention, 2010. Consensus Statement On 10 Fundamental Components Of FASD Prevention From A Women’S Health Determinants Perspective. [online] Canada Northwest FASD Research Network. Available at: <https://canfasd.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/ConsensusStatement.pdf&gt; [Accessed 24 September 2020].

4. CBC, 2020. This Mom Is Bringing Back An Innu Tradition, By Giving Birth In A Tent To Connect With Her Roots. [online] Available at: <https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/penashue-tent-birth-1.5713780&gt; [Accessed 24 September 2020].

5. Innu Round Table Secretariat, 2017. A Guide To The Innu Care Approach. [online] Available at: <http://www.irtsec.ca/2016/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/A-Guide-to-the-Innu-Care-Approach-Dec-2017.pdf&gt; [Accessed 24 September 2020].

Framing our messaging to women who access mobile apps and online content during pregnancy

Women are increasingly accessing pregnancy applications (‘apps’) as a primary source of information about health changes in pregnancy and fetal development. Pregnancy apps have features that track pregnancy signs and symptoms, do gestation calculations, and can blend functions to integrate games, social networking options, etc. [1]. Apps are well situated for women to safely and confidentially seek information that they may not feel comfortable asking of their health care professional.

Although most women use pregnancy apps for information seeking, many apps lack trusted information on important topics such as alcohol use, in part due to the limited involvement of informed health professionals and women knowledgeable about harm reduction in the content development process [1].

fasd blog June 2020

The ability to access evidence-based resources on alcohol use during pregnancy and FASD that is non-judgmental, trauma-informed, and harm reduction oriented, is more important than ever. Integrating Messages about Alcohol Use in Pregnancy and FASD: Guidelines for Pregnancy App Developers was created due to the increasing demand for pregnancy apps, paired with the need for consistent, evidence-based information across platforms.

These recommendations provide app developers with insight on how to frame messages about alcohol use and pregnancy so they are strengths-based, trauma-informed, and harm reduction oriented; recognizing that pregnancy apps are well positioned to offer women advice, links to local and national resources, and strategies that address women’s substance use and the influences on women’s drinking.

The recommendations address how there are many reasons why women may drink alcohol or use other substances during pregnancy; that reasons for alcohol use may change over the course of their pregnancy; and that a great deal of conflicting information about alcohol use and pregnancy exists. It is helpful to women and to service providers when health messaging about reducing stress, finding healthy coping strategies, enhancing support through safe relationships, and navigating social situations is integrated with information about the risks of alcohol/other substance use in pregnancy. We invite and encourage all those writing blogs and designing apps about health issues in pregnancy to use the guidance provided so that empowering and helpful information about reducing/stopping alcohol use when pregnant is consistent, becomes readily available, and discussed on all platforms.

 

  1. Hughson, J.P., Daly, J. O., Woodward-Kron, R., Hajek, J. Story, D., The rise of pregnancy apps and the implications for culturally and linguistically diverse women: Narrative review. Jmir Mhealth and Uhealth, 2018. 6(11): p. e189.

Putting evidence in women’s hands – alcohol and cannabis use when breastfeeding

Beautiful black mother breastfeeds her newborn sonTwo updated resources are available about alcohol and breastfeeding: a research update from CanFASD Alcohol and Breastfeeding and a brochure from Best Start  Mixing Alcohol and Breastfeeding.  They both illustrate how little research there is available, and how public health messaging directed to new mothers has changed over time.

The public health message currently offered to mothers is that it is safest not to drink alcohol when breastfeeding and if one chooses to drink, to avoid drinking near the time of breastfeeding, so that infants are exposed to the very least amount of alcohol. Some recent studies about alcohol use when breastfeeding have not found negative effects for infants – and instead, have found that low level drinking during breastfeeding was not associated with shorter breastfeeding duration or adverse outcomes in infants up to 12 months of age. These adverse outcomes included effects on infant feeding and sleeping behaviour, as well as developmental outcomes [1].

Yet, infants cannot metabolize alcohol in the same way as adults, and exposure to alcohol places them at risk of potential alcohol-related harm, in the short, if not long term.  As a result, the weight of decision-making about breastfeeding and drinking alcohol rests on women. What is low level drinking, and how can one assess the many confounding factors related to alcohol’s effects – sex, genetics, nutrition, use of other substances, etc.? All of these issues are in play for their own, and their infant’s health.

Similarly, in light of cannabis legalization, more attention has been placed on the impact of cannabis use on breastfeeding. As with alcohol, initial public health messaging focussed on the studies that showed risk.  But, a recent review of the literature led by Dr. Alice Ordean of St Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto, found only two articles that addressed the impact of postpartum cannabis use by lactating women that provided developmental outcomes for infants [2]. That review found some evidence regarding health risks of post-natal exposure to cannabis, but the authors noted that further research is needed to determine the impact of cannabis exposure via breastmilk on infant neurodevelopmental outcomes beyond the first year of life. They concluded that given the conflicting evidence on outcomes from exposure to cannabis in breast milk, women are advised that it is safest to abstain from cannabis use during lactation and to reduce consumption and plan timing for least exposure, if abstinence is not possible.

What has changed in our public health messaging? As well as repeating the sound advice that it is safest not to use these substances when breastfeeding, practical harm reduction advice is also offered.  In the case of alcohol, women are advised to plan ahead to consume alcohol immediately after, and not before, breastfeeding, so that infants are exposed to the very least amount of alcohol.  In the case of cannabis, women are advised to avoid breastfeeding within 1 hour of inhaled use to reduce exposure to highest concentration of cannabis in breast milk.

In addition to what is known and not known about the effects of exposure to substances when breastfeeding, there are many other reasons women may need to think critically about their alcohol and cannabis use as new mothers. These include relational attachment, fatigue, risk of exposure to 2nd and 3rd hand smoke for infants and children, and role modelling healthy behaviour.  With limited evidence, the benefits and drawbacks of low level alcohol and/or cannabis use will continue to be forefront for breastfeeding mothers.

  1. Tay, R.Y., et al., Alcohol consumption by breastfeeding mothers: Frequency, correlates, and infant outcomes. Drug and Alcohol Review, 2017. 36: p. 667-676.
  2. Ordean, A. and G. Kim, Cannabis Use During Lactation: Literature Review and Clinical Recommendations. Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada, epub January 25, 2020.

See
Alcohol and Breastfeeding. CanFASD Research Network April 2020
https://canfasd.ca/issue-papers-alerts/#1566440340786-344b257b-3fa1
Mixing Alcohol and Breastfeeding. Best Start/Health Nexus 2020
https://resources.beststart.org/product/a21e-mixing-alcohol-and-breastfeeding-brochure/
Cannabis Use During Pregnancy & Lacatation: Practice Resources for Health Care Proivders. Perinatal Services BC 2020
http://www.perinatalservicesbc.ca/Documents/Resources/HealthPromotion/cannabis-in-pregnancy-pratice-resource.pdf