For a lot of pregnant woman, there are difficult choices to make as they weigh their own health and well-being against that of their unborn child. There’s been conflicting information about whether commonly-prescribed medications like antidepressants, which many people rely upon, can cause harm to the fetus.
Now, a new study says pregnant women who take antidepressants during pregnancy are not putting their child at risk for intellectual disability. The study, which was published today in JAMA Psychiatry, looked at more than 179,000 children, half of whom had mothers who had taken antidepressants while they were pregnant. And the researchers didn’t find any connections between the child’s future mental challenges and the mother’s medication use.
“Those associations between antidepressants in pregnancy and outcomes of children — we often find out they’re due to other underlying conditions, and not due to the medication itself,” said Avraham Reichenberg, a professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York and co-author of the study.
When Reichenberg talks about intellectual disability, he’s referring to people who have an IQ of 70 or below and have a difficult time with everyday tasks and living on their own. Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, epilepsy, cerebral palsy and fetal alcohol syndrome are all examples of intellectual disabilities.
Reichenberg used data from 179,007 Swedish children born between 2006 and 2007, who were followed until 2014. The information came from the Swedish national health care system, which keeps track of residents’ medical information, including prescription medications and diagnosis.
About half of the mothers were diagnosed with depression prior to pregnancy, but didn’t take anti-depressants. The other half had a depression diagnosis and did take medication.
One percent of the children who’d been exposed to antidepressants while in the womb had an intellectual disability at age 8, twice the rate of children who weren’t exposed to antidepressants.
But after researchers took into account other factors that could have lead to the disability — such as the age of the parents and history of psychiatric disorder — that risk leveled out between the two groups.
And while it’s up to every pregnant woman and her medical provider to decide to start or stay on antidepressants during pregnancy, Reichenberg said these results at least show intellectual disability is likely not linked to antidepressant use.
“A mother is taking antidepressants for good medical reasons,” Reichenberg said. “The mother will be suffering from depression and that medication helps.”
While Reichenberg’s study shows that learning disabilities might not be of concern, there’s evidence that some antidepressants lead to babies being born with serious heart defects and some without parts of the skull, brain and stomach wall.
Reichenberg and other researchers are planning to do a similar study using data from other countries with similar registries. He also plans on looking at other kinds of prescription drug use during pregnancy and the affect on children.
This story has been updated.