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Pregnancy and Antidepressants: Understanding the Risks

Few, if any, medications are considered absolutely safe during pregnancy. Research findings on the effects of antidepressants on the growing baby are mixed and inconclusive. One study may find a particular antidepressant causes one type of risk. Another one, though, may find that it doesn’t. Also, the risks to the baby may be different depending on the type of antidepressant and when in the pregnancy it is taken. Regardless, most risks found by researchers have been low.

Reported risks for the baby include:

  • Persistent pulmonary hypertension in the newborn (PPHN), a serious condition of the blood vessels of the lungs.
  • Miscarriage.
  • Heart defects.
  • Birth defects, including anencephaly (affecting the spinal cord and brain), craniosynostosis (affecting the skull), omphalocele (affecting the abdominal organs), and limb malformation.
  • Preterm birth (being born before 37 weeks gestation).
  • Low birth weight (being born less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces).

In addition, at least one study showed that babies exposed to antidepressants in the womb experienced withdrawal symptoms, such as:

  • Breathing problems
  • Jitteriness
  • Irritability
  • Trouble feeding
  • Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
  • Poor tone

Some required a short stay (one to four days) in the neonatal intensive care unit. None of these symptoms caused any long-term harm to the baby.

The long-term impact of antidepressant exposure on development and behavior is still unclear. But, studies have not found a significant difference in IQ, behavior, mood, attention, or activity level in children who were exposed to antidepressants in the womb.

Pregnancy and Untreated Depression

Left untreated, depression can have far reaching effects on both your and your baby’s health. Women who are depressed are less likely to take proper care of themselves. For instance, they may not eat a healthy diet or may skip doctors’ appointments. Plus, women who are depressed may be more likely to take part in risky behaviors, such as drinking alcohol, smoking, or taking drugs during pregnancy. All of these actions can lead to potentially serious health problems for the baby, including miscarriage, preterm birth, and low birth weight.

Untreated depression can also take a toll on family dynamics. That includes your relationship with your spouse and other children. If you have older kids, they need you to care for them. For some pregnant women, regardless of their mental state, it can take all the energy they have to care for themselves. Add depression to the mix, and the suffering can become intolerable for everyone. If depression is preventing you from caring for your family, you may need to stay on your antidepressants during this vulnerable time.

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