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Researchers reviewed data from more than 905,000 children born in Denmark between 1998 and 2012. The children's health was followed for up to 16.5 years. During the follow-up period, 32,400 of the children were diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder.
The 15-year risk of psychiatric disorders was 8 percent among children whose mothers didn't take antidepressants during pregnancy. The risk was 11.5 percent among those whose mothers took antidepressants before pregnancy. And the risk was up to 14.5 percent among those whose mothers took antidepressants before and during pregnancy or who began taking antidepressants during pregnancy.
But the researchers said their findings have to be interpreted with caution.
Due to the study's design, the researchers did not prove a cause-and-effect link.
This was an observational study, so the association identified may be due to other factors, such as the severity of the mother's illness combined with antidepressant exposure in the womb, the study authors said.
"Mothers with severe symptoms are more likely to continue treatment during pregnancy," said study author Xiaoqin Liu, from Aarhus University in Denmark, and colleagues.
The researchers also emphasized that the decision to stop or continue taking antidepressants during pregnancy should be made jointly by patients and doctors. Untreated depression can also cause problems for mom and baby, according to the U.S. Office on Women's Health.
Between 2 and 8 percent of pregnant women take antidepressants, the researchers said.
The study was published Sept. 6 in The BMJ.
Long-term studies are needed to learn more about how drugs taken during pregnancy affect a child's neurodevelopment, Hedvig Nordeng and colleagues from the University of Oslo, Norway, wrote in an accompanying editorial.
But it's important for researchers to report absolute risks so that doctors and pregnant women have a clear understanding of the issue, they said.
"For example, if prenatal exposure to antidepressants is associated with a 23 percent increased risk of autism in children, and assuming a baseline prevalence of autism of 1 percent, then for every 10,000 women who continue treatment during pregnancy, 23 additional cases of autism would occur," Nordeng and colleagues wrote.
"This number may be alarming to some patients and reassuring to others," the editorialists said in a journal news release.
They added that observational studies such as this one need to be supplemented with data from other types of research, including laboratory, animal and genetic studies, to give a fuller picture of how drugs may affect a developing fetus.
-- Robert Preidt
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SOURCE: The BMJ, news release, Sept. 6, 2017