Antidepressants Linked to Newborn Problems
SSRI Use During Pregnancy Associated With Premature Birth, Other Health Problems for Babies
Oct. 5, 2009 -- New research provides further evidence that links
antidepressant use among pregnant mothers to problems for their newborns at
The study showed that exposure to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
(SSRIs) is associated with babies born an average of five days earlier and with
twice the rate of premature births as infants whose mothers had no history of
Premature birth -- also known as preterm birth -- is commonly defined as
happening before the baby has reached 37 weeks and happens in about 12% of all
pregnancies. Cognitive problems, breathing problems, cerebral palsy, and
digestive problems are all associated with preemie births.
Newborns whose mothers took SSRIs while expecting were also more than twice
as likely to be admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and to have
a lower 5-minute Apgar score than babies whose mothers did not take the drugs
during pregnancy, according to the study. The Apgar score is a shorthand method
of rating a newborn’s health status immediately after birth.
“Based on these results, we can say that there is an effect of SSRIs taken
during pregnancy,” says lead researcher Najaaraq Lund, MD. “But whether or not
this should be a reason for avoiding SSRIs? We still don’t have a final
answer,” says Lund, who was a medical student researcher at the University of
Aarhus in Denmark at the time the study was conducted.
SSRIs are the most common class of antidepressants taken by pregnant women
in the U.S. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG)
estimates that between 14%-23% of all pregnant women experience some form of
depression during pregnancy.
In the study, Lund’s team used health records of more than 56,000 women who
received prenatal care from the University of Aarhus Hospital between 1989 and
2006. The vast majority of these women had no psychiatric illness, but about
300 of them had received SSRIs during their pregnancy and nearly 5,000 of the
study participants had a history of psychiatric problems but did not take any
SSRIs while being treated for their pregnancy.
The study did not find significant differences between birth weight or head
circumference between infants in any of the three groups.
Charles Lockwood, MD, chairman of the department of obstetrics, gynecology
and reproductive sciences at Yale University, says that because women who are
taking antidepressants are more likely to be sicker than those who do not --
and thus more likely to deliver prematurely as a result of the stress of their
mental illness -- it’s possible the results were slightly confounded by this
“It’s sort of like the chicken and egg problem,” says Lockwood, who
co-authored guidelines on the treatment for depression during pregnancy
published jointly this August by ACOG and the American Psychiatric Association.
“But the study still adds further weight to the possibility that the SSRIs
themselves may be related to prematurity,” he says. Lockwood was not involved
in the current study.