Can I take courses or shoot while I’m pregnant or nursing?

Can a pregnant woman or nursing mother safely take a firearms course or handle guns and ammunition? This is a question we don’t get asked often enough, but one we feel we should get asked more. If you sign up for any of our courses, as soon as you select “female” as your gender, we automatically add a warning to consult your physician before committing to taking a course or handling firearms.

Our goal is for our courses to be safe and appealing to everyone, even expectant or nursing mothers, so yes, it can be done, but we encourage any woman in these stages to undertake extra precautions. One of the first questions asked once class starts is “Are any of our students here today pregnant or nursing?” It’s not to be embarrassing to an expectant or recent mother. It’s to be sure we remember to include the proper safeguards to help you take the class comfortably.

Any woman that is expecting or nursing will be issued latex gloves before being asked to touch any cleaning solutions, solvents, or actual bullets. The chemicals in firearm solvents are often soluble through the skin, and of course all bullets contain traces of lead, which isn’t good for the mother or a baby. Read some facts below and then consult with your physician prior to registering for class. You can even have your physician call us with any questions they might have about what you will be exposed to during the class, so they can better inform you of what they think you should do.

Research by Doctors Elizabeth Kennedy and Fabrice Czarnecki

There is an extensive body of research that indicates that lead exposure is toxic to adults as well as a developing embryo or fetus. And we also know that lead is transferred from the mother to the fetus. Lead exposure has been associated with: decreased birth weight and head circumference, (even at very low exposure levels), miscarriage, premature delivery and pre-eclampsia (a severe complication of pregnancy) as well as causing behavioral effects in infants and children. One study stated that premature delivery and a decreased growth stature “have all been associated with prenatal lead exposure at “acceptable” levels.”

Armed with that information, it is easy to minimize lead exposure when using firearms, and knowledgeable firearms instructors have taken steps to protect themselves from lead exposure with excellent results. According to Lyn Bates, these are some of the ways that shooters can get high lead levels:

  • Shooting on an indoor range, especially one that is inadequately ventilated 
  • Shooting lead ammunition (and primers) 
  • Handling/loading lead bullets (including putting rounds with exposed lead tips into magazines) 
  • Cleaning up a range (especially picking up or sweeping material from the floor or bullet trap area) 
  • Eating or drinking on a range 
  • Failing to thoroughly wash hands and mouth after shooting(or washing with hot water instead of cool) 
  • Failing to change clothes after returning home after shooting(especially on an indoor range) 
  • Failing to wear gloves when cleaning guns

Ms. Bates believes that lead exposure can be controlled, and she is in good company. Dr. Heiskell agrees. Lawrence E. Heiskell, M.D.,FACEP, FAAFP has ten years experience as a SWAT team physician,and is currently a Reserve Police Officer, as well as a firearms instructor and Medical Director or Heckler and Koch’s Tactical Emergency Medicine Program.

Toxicity from other chemicals and heavy metals besides lead, shooting and cleaning a firearm exposes you to other chemicals, including cleaning solvents, and other heavy metals, including barium, antimony,copper and arsenic. It is not clear, whether these chemicals are safe or dangerous for the fetus, during or after a shooting session.Pregnant or not, it’s just safer to conduct all firearm cleaning activities outdoors or in very well ventilated areas.

Some thoughts on loud noise

Noise, especially very loud noise and chronic exposure to loud noise, is usually considered as detrimental during the pregnancy. In most European countries, health regulations forbid pregnant women to work in surroundings with a level over 80 dB continuous noise and rapid impulse noise changes of 40 dB, which is much less than the noise of a firearm. In the United States, the Department of Labor limits for impulse (not continuous) noise is 140 dB (Dept.of Labor Bulletin #334, 1971) with additional regulations for ongoing noise. The sound levels of firearms are about 125-140 dB for rimfire rifles, 140-150dB for rimfire pistols, and 150-160 dB for centerfire rifles, pistols,and shotguns.

Intrauterine measurements in some studies showed that the fetus was not significantly protected against loud noises. One study,in human volunteers, found noise only diminished by 10 dB at 4000Hz. As a comparison, foam plugs generally offer a protection of 12 to 20dB, and are considered as the least effective hearing protection. However, studies involving sound can be suspect. Silencer manufacturers,who work very carefully with sound, will tell you that with small positioning changes in the microphones, you can dramatically change the results of the tests.

Silencers/suppressors, although not readily available to the average woman, could be very beneficial to the pregnant officer who shoots a firearm, in that it can reduce the report of each shot by approximately 30 dB. Unlike what we see on television, that’s still pretty darn loud though, and you still need to wear good hearing protection.It does not totally reduce the noise of the firearm, and would not stop the sound from reaching the fetus.

Numerous studies demonstrate that exposure to noise during pregnancy,has been linked to such disorders as miscarriage, intrauterine growth retardation, premature delivery (less than 37 weeks), decreased birth weight, hearing loss in babies and children, altered immune response in the fetus and hypertension during pregnancy (a potentially severe disorder). Interestingly, one study showed that a combined exposure to noise and lead seemed to have an increased toxicity,causing heart lesions, which was not observed for either of those agents in isolation. The question again, is “how relevant are the studies to our very specific question?” The answer again, is “we just don’t know.” Is it something we want to chance?

One thing we do know is that fetal response to sounds begins at about 16 weeks, and the ear is structurally complete by 24 weeks.(At 25 weeks, a baby will move in rhythm to an orchestra drum!)According to The American Academy of Pediatrics, “the hearing threshold (the intensity at which one perceives sound) is approximately 40 dB at 27-29 weeks, and decreases to a nearly adult level of 13.5 dB by 42 weeks of gestation.” It would appear that even though the structures are all in place, the sense is not fully developed until birth. We also don’t know at what point the fetus is most susceptible to noise damage of the ear, whether it’s during the first trimester, second or third.

Interestingly, “the vestibular system, [the part of the ear]designed to register head and body motion, as well as the pull of gravity, begins developing at eight weeks.” It is believed that “receptive hearing begins with the skin and skeletal framework, [and] is then amplified with vestibular and cochlear information as it becomes available. Hearing is clearly a major information channel operating 24 weeks before birth.”

So.. now you know.. and knowing is half the battle! ( I think we just violated GI Joe’s copyright with that statement).


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