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Antidepressants During Pregnancy Dangerous for the Child?

Depression is sometimes described as a disease of modernity, as sharp changes in lifestyle during the last century or so have given rise to many chronic disorders including or linked to depression. Depression is a state of low mood: the person affected tends to lose interest in previously enjoyable activities. In severe cases, self-harm is also possible. Fortunately, there are many options available today to help treat this condition.

Research studies and statistics show that although pregnant women are less prone to major depression, they are more inclined to minor depressive episodes. The prevalence of depression can be anywhere between 8–16% among pregnant women. There are also higher chances that diagnosis of depression is overlooked in pregnant women.

The treatment of depression is quite challenging in pregnancy, as medical specialists have to weigh the benefits of treatment against the risks for the mother and the health of her unborn baby. Furthermore, the health professional has to take into consideration the risks and benefits of any such therapy to the long-term health of the child. New research seems to indicate that treatment of pregnant women with antidepressant drugs may increase the risk of autism, disturbances in motor function, and mental health problem in children. Some of these issues may become clear later in the life, thus studying this subject remains a challenge for researchers.

Why treat depression in pregnancy?

There is a widespread misconception that depression is not as threatening as other medical illnesses. Thus, treating depression is viewed as a matter of choice or even a luxury. Moreover, many patients that are on antidepressant drugs before pregnancy are in the remissive stage. Therefore, their doctors may think of discontinuing the therapy.

However, if a pregnant woman that is vulnerable to depression is not provided with antidepressant therapy, there is a higher risk of preterm birth, low birth weight, substance abuse in pregnancy (e.g., smoking and drinking alcohol), and a significantly higher risk of postpartum depression.

Research has shown that if antidepressants are discontinued for the period of the pregnancy, the relapse rate of major depression is as high as 60–70%. This can have severe consequences for the patient, family, and child. In addition, children born to mothers with untreated depression have higher levels of cortisol, which may have adverse impacts on their health.

Risks of antidepressants

As already mentioned, the use of antidepressants in pregnancy is a complicated issue due to possible dangers. Below are some of the common problems associated with the use of antidepressants during pregnancy.

Persistent pulmonary hypertension

This is a failure of lungs blood vessels to dilate in a child post-birth. Thus, a new-born may have breathing difficulties, a deficit of oxygen in the blood, leading to intubation. In many cases, outcomes may be fatal. This condition is also found to be related to maternal smoking, diabetes, and sepsis. Though the risk of persistent pulmonary hypertension in new-born increases up to six times with the use of antidepressants, at the same time there is a consensus among the medical community that non-use of antidepressants may be even more harmful.

Withdrawal symptoms

This is also called “poor neonatal adaptation.” These symptoms are common when a mother has been exposed to antidepressants during the third trimester of pregnancy. Some of the symptoms characteristic of this syndrome include difficulties in breathing, unstable body temperature, hypo- or hypertonia, irritability, constant crying, and seizures. Therefore, some specialists recommend tapering the dose of antidepressants in the third trimester.

Motor development

By motor development, we mean child’s ability to move around and handle the environment. There are clinical studies that indicate that the use of antidepressants during pregnancy may slow the motor development. A child may start walking later than other kids, or may have other problems related to movements.

Autism spectrum disorders

This is a neurodevelopmental disorder of children. Studies seem to show the modest increase in the risk of autism if a mother is exposed to antidepressants during the first trimester.  However, no link has been found if such treatment has been given before the pregnancy, nor much relationship has been demonstrated if the therapy was initiated in a later phase of pregnancy. Thus, researchers caution that decision of prescribing antidepressants should be taken on a case by case basis by analysing the risks and potential benefits for maternal and child health.

Psychiatric disorders

In one of the large-scale studies, scientists analysed the data of almost one million births, and they found that the use of antidepressants in pregnancy was related to higher risk of developing psychiatric disorders later in life. Nonetheless, at the same time, researchers cautioned against jumping to the quick conclusions because it is a well-known fact that mental disorders have relation to genetics. It means that women prescribed antidepressants during the pregnancy have higher chances of passing to children the genes that may result in psychiatric diseases later in life.

Although antidepressants may increase the risk of specific disorders in the new-born babies or may even have a negative impact later in the life, it does not mean that antidepressants should not be taken during the pregnancy. It is essential that women should not feel guilty about taking such drugs. The medical specialists must be aware of the risks and weigh them against the benefits before they prescribe antidepressants to pregnant women.


Casper, R.C., Fleisher, B.E., Lee-Ancajas, J.C., Gilles, A., Gaylor, E., DeBattista, A., Hoyme, H.E., 2003. Follow-up of children of depressed mothers exposed or not exposed to antidepressant drugs during pregnancy. J. Pediatr. 142, 402–408. doi:10.1067/mpd.2003.139

Croen, L.A., Grether, J.K., Yoshida, C.K., Odouli, R., Hendrick, V., 2011. Antidepressant Use During Pregnancy and Childhood Autism Spectrum Disorders. Arch. Gen. Psychiatry 68, 1104–1112. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.73

Ko, J.Y., Farr, S.L., Dietz, P.M., Robbins, C.L., 2012. Depression and Treatment Among U.S. Pregnant and Nonpregnant Women of Reproductive Age, 2005–2009. J. Womens Health 2002 21, 830–836. doi:10.1089/jwh.2011.3466

Payne, J.L., Meltzer-Brody, S., 2009. Antidepressant Use During Pregnancy: Current Controversies and Treatment Strategies. Clin. Obstet. Gynecol. 52, 469–482. doi:10.1097/GRF.0b013e3181b52e20

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Source: Brain Blogger