Taking antidepressants while pregnant is safe for the baby, study says

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Women taking antidepressants usually hear from their doctors that they should keep taking their medications even if they become pregnant. Despite this, lingering doubts remain about whether these drugs are totally safe for both mother and child. Now, a new study contends pregnant women have no reason to worry about taking antidepressants. Researchers report that, if anything, untreated maternal psychiatric conditions may increase the risk of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and developmental delay (DD) in offspring.

On the other hand, any antidepressant medication of the SSRI variety (serotonin-selective reuptake inhibitors) appears to have no lingering impact on unborn children.

Earlier studies discovered a possible link between maternal SSRI use and ASD in a patient’s children. It’s also worth mentioning that disrupted serotonergic pathways (which SSRIs impact) have a connection to autism. Up until now, though, the true nature of the relationship had remained unclear.

“Our latest findings are good news for women managing psychiatric conditions such as depression and anxiety while pregnant and are consistent with a growing body of research that’s trying to better disentangle the separate relationships of the mother’s SSRI treatment and psychiatric indications during pregnancy with child neurodevelopment,” explains Jennifer Ames, PhD, from Kaiser Permanente and lead author of the new study, in a press release.

1 in 3 women may deal with mental health issues during pregnancy

Researchers used pediatric development data pertaining to thousands of children from the Study to Explore Early Development (SEED) project, collected between 2003 and 2011, for this research. The team separated that data into three distinct groups: those with ASD (1,367 children); those with DD (1,750 children); and healthy control patients (1,671 children). Meanwhile, researchers assessed each mother’s mental state through self-reports and medical records. Roughly a third of the mothers in this study received a diagnosis for a psychiatric condition before or during their pregnancies. A quarter of that group were taking SSRIs or other antidepressants to treat it.

The investigation led researchers to conclude that children born to mothers dealing with a psychiatric disorder were twice as likely to develop ASD or DD. However, using SSRIs to treat those conditions did not increase that risk further.

“Parents have been concerned about the risks posed to infants when mothers take antidepressant medications. It is a big relief to see that maternal antidepressant consumption does not increase the risk for autism spectrum disorder or other neurodevelopmental disorders. However, this study does confirm that maternal psychiatric disorders are associated with increased risk for autism spectrum disorder in offspring,” says John Krystal, MD, editor of medical journal Biological Psychiatry.

“Our study has some unique strengths such as including a large and demographically diverse group of mothers and children in the United States, an analysis of specific subgroups of children with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disorders, and an examination of multiple types of psychiatric conditions in the mothers,” Dr. Ames continues.

Estimates show about six percent of pregnant women in the United States are taking SSRIs.

The team published their findings in the journal Biological Psychiatry.