Although estimates put rates of depression among pregnant women as high as 20 percent, questions remain about whether women should take antidepressants during pregnancy. But now, a new large-scale study has found that taking medication in early pregnancy actually poses fewer risks than previously thought, particularly when it comes to autism and attention hyperactivity disorders in children.
Scientists from Indiana University, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Karolinska Institute in Sweden found that mothers’ antidepressant use during early pregnancy doesn’t increase a child’s risk of developing autism or ADHD, even though these conditions had previously been linked with the medication. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study also found that antidepressant exposure wasn’t linked to reduced fetal growth. Yet, despite the positive findings, the researchers also determined that the risk for premature birth was slightly higher — about 1.3 times — for exposed offspring.
“To our knowledge, this is one of the strongest studies to show that exposure to antidepressants during early pregnancy is not associated with autism, ADHD, or poor fetal growth when taking into account the factors that lead to medication use in the first place,” lead study author Dr. Brian D’Onofrio, a professor at the IU Bloomington Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, said in a statement.
The study analyzed data on all live births in Sweden between 1996 and 2012 — over 1.5 million infants — and looked at the country’s antidepressant use in adults, autism and ADHD diagnoses in children, genetic relationships between parents and children, and more. The researchers controlled for other factors that can affect health — including a mother’s age at childbearing — in siblings whose mothers took the medication during one pregnancy and not in the other. In instances where there was a slightly higher risk of autism, ADHD, or poor fetal growth in the children of mothers who took antidepressants, the scientists discovered that the heightened risk was actually linked to familial (i.e., genetics) or environmental factors, as opposed to the medication.
The findings are in line with a 2015 study that found treating maternal psychiatric disorders with serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) during pregnancy reduces the risk of preterm birth and cesarean section, though it slightly increased the risk of neonatal maladaptation. However, Dr. D’Onofrio cautioned that women should consult with their doctors prior to going on the medication, saying in the statement, “Balancing the risks and benefits of using antidepressants during pregnancy is an extremely difficult decision that every woman should make in consultation with her doctor.”