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Are antidepressants safe to take during pregnancy?

New study following 145,000 pregnant women on antidepressants finds taking the medication is safe

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A bottle of Eli Lilly & Co.’s Prozac is pictured at a company facility in Plainfield, Ind.

In this Jan. 11, 2008, file photo, a bottle of Eli Lilly & Co.’s Prozac is pictured at a company facility in Plainfield, Ind.

Darron Cummings, Associated Press

For the sake of the baby they are carrying, many pregnant women in the past have stopped taking antidepressants. And some women have opted not to become pregnant because of fears the medication they use would harm their babies.

New research is reassuring. A study involving more than 145,000 women who were “antidepressant exposed” and their children with a long follow-up — 14 years — shows women who need antidepressants can take them safely during pregnancy without fear the medication will impact the baby’s neurodevelopment.

More than 3 million pregnancies where there was no antidepressant use served as a comparison group for the study, which included researchers from a number of high-profile institutions, including Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Stanford University School of Medicine, The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Northwestern University, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Brown University’s medical school and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Study findings

According to the study, published this week in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, taking antidepressants during pregnancy “was not associated with autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, specific learning disorders, developmental speech/language disorders, developmental coordination disorders, intellectual disabilities, or behavioral disorders.”

The findings were “generally consistent“ across different classes of antidepressants, including those commonly prescribed, and findings didn’t change during different periods of gestation, the authors reported.

“We believe these results are reassuring when it comes to concerns about the potential effects on neurodevelopmental outcomes in children, especially for diagnoses that may be of greater concern to expectant parents like autism spectrum disorder,” Elizabeth A. Suarez, lead author from Harvard University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told CNN by email.

Women with depression and other mental conditions who have been prescribed antidepressants can be told that risk of taking them during pregnancy “is not as high as previously thought,” Carmine Pariante, professor of biological psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at Kings College in London, said in a written statement to the Science Media Centre.

The researchers did note that while antidepressant use in pregnancy doesn’t increase the risk of neurodevelopmental problems in children, that could be “an important marker for the need of early screening and intervention.”

Talk to your doctor

While the study is large and follows women and their children for years, women still should discuss their medication and options with their medical provider, according to experts.

A 2015 study in the BMJ that looked at a class of medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors was also reassuring, “but suggests that some birth defects occur 2-3.5 times more frequently among the infants of women treated with paroxetine or fluoxetine early in pregnancy.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that “previous studies provide conflicting evidence about potential links between the use of SSRIs during pregnancy and certain birth defects.” That report was written well before the new study was published.

The CDC further noted that “despite the increased risks for certain birth defects from some SSRIs found in this study, the actual risk for a birth defect among babies born to women taking one of these medications is still very low. Because these specific types of birth defects are rare, even doubling the risk still results in a low absolute risk.” 

More than 1 in 8 U.S. adults use antidepressants, according to the CDC. For women, the number is closer to 1 in 5.

“We have been waiting for a study such as this,” Thea Gallagher, a clinical assistant professor of psychology at NYU Langone Health and cohost of the “Mind in View” podcast, told Prevention.

The article continues, “Gallagher points out that pregnant women who struggle with anxiety and depression have not had robust data to consult when making decisions about continuing with their antidepressants or starting new medication.”