Prenatal Antidepressant Use May Increase Risk of Developmental Deficits in Children

New research shows that side effects of certain antidepressant drugs taken during pregnancy may increase the risk of developmental delays and/or cause impaired cognition and language problems in exposed children. Depression is common among expectant mothers, affecting up to one in five pregnant women, and many of these women are prescribed antidepressant medications during pregnancy. Antidepressants are the most commonly prescribed medication class for treating depression and the two most popular categories of antidepressant drugs include SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and SNRIs (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors). If you took an SSRI or SNRI antidepressant while pregnant and your child was born with a birth defect or has struggled with developmental delays in childhood, contact a knowledgeable antidepressant drug injury attorney today for legal help.

Antidepressant Drugs and Birth Defects

Whether you suffer from depression or not, you have probably heard of SSRI antidepressants like Celexa (citalopram), Paxil (paroxetine) and Zoloft (sertraline) or SNRI antidepressants like Cymbalta (duloxetine) and Effexor XR (venlafaxine). Perhaps the biggest concern with SSRI or SNRI antidepressants is the potential risk of birth defects associated with antidepressant use during pregnancy. Decades of research has examined the potential adverse effects of exposure to antidepressant drugs in utero on a child’s physical and mental development. Previous research has linked exposure to SSRI antidepressants in utero to a number of adverse outcomes, including an increased risk of anxiety later in life and an increased risk of autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and certain other behavioral, developmental and mood disorders. Some antidepressant drugs have also been linked to an increased risk of severe birth defects like cleft lip, heart defects, lung malformations, limb defects and neural tube birth defects.

Developmental Vulnerability Among Children Exposed to Antidepressants

This latest study, published this month in the journal Pediatrics, was conducted by researchers from Canada and looked for signs of developmental vulnerability among kindergarteners whose mothers took SSRI or SNRI antidepressants to treat a prenatal mood or anxiety disorder. In order to do so, the researchers examined a population-based cohort of 266,479 mother-child groups involving children born in Manitoba, Canada between 1996 and 2014. Nearly 14,000 women who were diagnosed with a mood or anxiety disorder between 90 days before conception were selected for the study. Of those, more than 2,000 took either SSRI or SNRI antidepressants while pregnant. Another 10,017 women who did not take SSRI or SNRI antidepressants during pregnancy were included in the study as a control group.

In order to evaluate the developmental health of the children born to these women, the researchers used a 104-component questionnaire covering five developmental domains, called the Early Development Instrument (EDI). A total of 3,048 children who met the inclusion criteria and had an EDI were included in the study and more than 20% of children in the group exposed to SSRI or SNRI antidepressants in utero were assessed as vulnerable on two or more developmental domains, compared to 16% in the control group. The researchers also found that exposed children had a significant risk of experiencing problems with cognition and/or language. Based on their findings, the researchers concluded that “Exposure to SSRIs or SNRIs during pregnancy was associated with an increased risk of developmental vulnerability and an increased risk of deficits in language and/or cognition.”

Risks of Antidepressant Exposure vs. Untreated Depression

Approximately 10% of expectant mothers are prescribed antidepressant medications to treat a prenatal mood or anxiety disorder, with SSRIs and SNRIs being the most commonly prescribed antidepressants. Despite the widespread use of antidepressants among pregnant women, research examining the long-term effects of antidepressant use in pregnancy on the brain development of exposed children is limited, the Canadian researchers report. It should be noted that there are also serious risks that go along with untreated maternal depression. Pregnant women with untreated depression may be at risk for postpartum depression, preeclampsia, substance use disorders and suicidal thoughts or actions, among other potentially harmful problems. Babies born to women with untreated depression may also face an increased risk of problems like premature birth, intrauterine growth restriction, low birth weight and delayed childhood development.

The more we understand about the potential side effects of widely prescribed pharmaceutical drugs, especially those prescribed to pregnant women, the more informed decisions we can make about our own health and the health of our loved ones. When it comes to treating depression in pregnant women, it is important that the potential risks of fetal exposure to antidepressants is weighed against the risks of untreated maternal depression. And it is important for the expectant mother to understand the potential risk to her developing baby taking SSRI or SNRI antidepressants may pose.