Should You Breastfeed Your Baby If You're on Methadone?

By Elizabeth Brico 09/04/18

My daughter was born with neonatal abstinence syndrome but I was not allowed to nurse or have her in the room with me; the hospital staff said the methadone in my breast milk could be dangerous. They were wrong.

Smiling mother holding newborn baby.
Studies have demonstrated that the amount of methadone that gets passed into breast milk is negligible, and will not harm an infant, even a newborn.

Earlier this summer several news outlets reported on the death of an 11-week-old infant in Philadelphia by what appeared to be a drug overdose. The mother, who has been charged with criminal homicide, blamed the drug exposure on her breast milk. Although an autopsy revealed that the infant's drug exposure also included amphetamine and methamphetamine, many news outlets chose to focus on the fact that the mother was a methadone patient. The death of an infant by drug exposure is unquestionably terrible; unfortunately, misleading articles make what is already a tragedy even worse by insinuating or directly stating that the methadone content in the breast milk was involved in the infant's death.

Stigma around methadone use in the United States has a long shadow. Prescribed primarily to treat opioid use disorder (but also sometimes for pain management), methadone is a long acting opioid that builds in the patient's bloodstream to create a stable, non-euphoric equilibrium when used correctly. It is a highly effective form of both addiction treatment and harm reduction, shown to reduce overdose deaths by 50% or more. Unlike short acting opioids like heroin or morphine, methadone prevents patients from experiencing the physical chaos of sedation and withdrawal, and can help re-balance neurochemical changes that take place during active addiction. For decades, methadone has been considered the gold standard of treatment for opioid use disorder, including during and after pregnancy.

But in spite of the demonstrated benefits of methadone and its pharmacological differences from commonly misused opioids, it has, for many years, acquired a popular status as "legal heroin." Social media is flooded with memes mocking methadone patients or complaining that they don't deserve "free methadone" when other drugs cost money (in fact, methadone has a price tag like any other medication). Even other people in recovery or the throes of active addiction disparage methadone, sometimes referring to it as "liquid handcuffs" because of the stringent regulations requiring daily trips to a clinic during the first several months of treatment.

This stigma leaks into every aspect of patient care. For me, it prevented me from seeking treatment for years. I was terrified to get on methadone. Who would volunteer to be "handcuffed" by a treatment system? But when I learned I was pregnant, my doctors urged me to get on methadone. They said that attempting to withdraw from heroin would be dangerous for my developing baby, and continuing to use would be even riskier.

I was reluctant, but I enrolled in a methadone maintenance program as my doctors advised. Because of that, I had a healthy, full-term pregnancy. But at the Florida-based hospital where my daughter was taken after a speedy, unplanned home birth, I was not allowed to breastfeed. My daughter suffered neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a condition caused by opioid withdrawal that occurs in some babies whose mothers used methadone or other opioids while pregnant; she was dosed with morphine to wean her down from the methadone she received in utero, and the hospital staff told me that adding my methadone dose via breast milk could be dangerous. Because of that, my milk production dwindled, and my daughter—who stayed in the hospital over a month—never learned to properly latch. After she came home, she suffered colic, constipation, and sleep disturbances as we worked through various formulas trying to find one that was gentle on her stomach.

But these negative ideas about methadone distribution in breast milk are flat out wrong. We know that methadone is a highly potent, long-acting opioid that is extremely dangerous if given to infants and children directly. No amount of methadone syrup should be administered to an infant or child by a parent or caregiver without physician approval. But studies have demonstrated that the amount of methadone that gets passed into breast milk is negligible, and will not harm an infant, even a newborn. A 2007 study of methadone-maintained mothers in addiction recovery found that methadone concentrations in breast milk remained minimal in the first four days postpartum, regardless of maternal dose, time of day after dosing, and type of breast milk being expressed. The daily amount of methadone ingestible by the infants did not rise above .09 mg per day. To help prevent even that slight fluctuation, John McCarthy, a practicing and teaching psychiatrist who has treated opioid-dependent pregnant and postpartum women for over 40 years, suggests splitting nursing mothers' methadone doses in two—a measure that should have begun during pregnancy to help minimize the risk of NAS. "It’s not dangerous to nurse on a once a day dose, but it's not the best way to give the medication. The baby should be given a smooth level of methadone."

Some people believe that breastfeeding an infant with NAS while on methadone will help decrease withdrawal symptoms by providing a minute amount of the same drug from which the infant is withdrawing. According to experts like Jana Burson, a doctor specializing in the treatment of opioid addiction, this belief is also false: “some mothers erroneously think their babies won’t withdraw if they breastfeed—that’s wrong. There’s not enough methadone in the breast milk to treat NAS.” Of course, breastfeeding a child who experiences NAS is beneficial, both because of the health benefits of breast milk, and because maternal contact is important for babies in distress. “Breastfeeding will help in the general sense that babies like to breastfeed and it's calming, but not because babies are getting methadone in the breast milk."

Sandi C., a methadone-maintained mother based out of Massachusetts, breastfed her son for two and a half years, and plans on breastfeeding the baby she is currently expecting. Like me, Sandi was addicted to heroin when she learned she was pregnant. She began on buprenorphine, a partial-opioid agonist used similarly to methadone, and switched to methadone partway through her pregnancy. But her postnatal experience was different than mine.

"I'm really fortunate that my area is really encouraging of breastfeeding," says Sandi. "Actually, I wasn't sure if I could breastfeed and [my doctor] said 'definitely breastfeed, we encourage it.'" Like my daughter, Sandi's son was diagnosed with NAS. But instead of being sent to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), her son was allowed to be in the hospital room with her, where Sandi could hold and breastfeed him as much as he needed. Her son was released after just two weeks, less than half the time my daughter spent in the NICU at our hospital in Florida. She continued to breastfeed at home until he was over two years old.

"He never got sedated," she recalls. "Everything was fine."

Just because methadone is safe for breastfeeding moms doesn't mean the same is true for other drugs. If the Philadelphia baby's death was in fact caused by what many outlets have called "drug-laced breast milk," it would have been due to the amphetamines, not the methadone. Methamphetamine breast milk exposure has not been studied as extensively as methadone, but current recommendations are that lactating women should wait 48 hours after their last use of methamphetamine before resuming breastfeeding. Experts like Burson and McCarthy agree that mothers on methadone maintenance who are not using other substances can safely breastfeed. "All of the major medical groups recommend it," Burson said, adding, "even on higher doses they all recommend that mothers on methadone breastfeed."

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Elizabeth Brico is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. She got her MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University, where she justified spending more time shooting dope than doing homework because William Burroughs once taught there. Now, she writes about trauma, addiction, and recovery on her blog Betty's Battleground. She's also a regular contributor to the PTSD blog on HealthyPlace, and freelances as much as she can for The Fix and Tonic/VICE. Her work has also appeared on VoxStatOzyTalk PovertyRacked, and The Establishment, among others. In her free time she can usually be found reading, writing, or watching speculative fiction. Find her portfolio and ramblings about writing on, or stalk her on Twitter: @elizabethbrico (if you're interesting, she might even stalk you back).