If you have epilepsy and are thinking about getting pregnant, you probably have some important questions. Is it safe for me to get pregnant? Will having epilepsy make it harder for me to conceive? If I do get pregnant, how will I manage my seizures while I'm expecting? Could my antiseizure drugs harm my baby?
Fortunately, most women with epilepsy give birth to normal, healthy babies. If you take precautions, your chance of having a healthy child is greater than 90%. There are increased risks. But working closely with your doctor can help minimize those risks.
Before you try to conceive, you should talk to your neurologist and your obstetrician. Most doctors recommend that women with epilepsy be cared for by a high-risk obstetrician during their pregnancy. Both will want to monitor you closely throughout.
Getting Pregnant With Epilepsy
It's possible that having epilepsy may make it more difficult for you to get pregnant. Women with epilepsy have fewer children than women in general. Their fertility rate is between 25% and 33% lower than average. Why is this? Here are some possible reasons:
- Women with epilepsy have higher rates of some conditions that can cause infertility. One of these is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
- Women with epilepsy are more likely to have irregular menstrual cycles, which can make it more difficult to get pregnant.
- Women with epilepsy are also more likely to have menstrual cycles that do not produce an egg. These are called anovulatory cycles.
- Some antiseizure drugs may affect the hormone levels in your ovaries, which can affect reproductive functioning.
- Women with epilepsy are more likely to have abnormalities in hormones involved in pregnancy.
A 2018 study found that overall, women with epilepsy who have no history of infertility are just as likely to get pregnant as women without epilepsy.
If your seizures are not under control, that may affect your fertility, as well. Experts say that if a woman is having seizures around the time their body is preparing to ovulate, they may disrupt the signals that make that process occur.
Once you become pregnant, it will be even more important to control your seizures. Having seizures during pregnancy can affect the health of your baby. You might fall, or the baby may be deprived of oxygen during the seizure, which can injure the baby and increase your risk of miscarriage or stillbirth..
Epilepsy Drugs and Pregnancy
In the general population there is a 2%-3% chance that a child will have a birth defect. In women with epilepsy, this risk goes up to 4%-8%.
Some studies have shown that women with epilepsy naturally have lower folate levels in their blood. Unfortunately, some of the most common drugs for controlling seizures -- phenytoin (Dilantin) and valproate, valproic acid (Depakote, Depakene) -- may be associated with a higher risk of having a child with birth defects, especially neural tube defects like spina bifida, because they reduce concentrations of certain forms of folate in the blood.
Although the link between antiseizure medications and birth defects is not clear, your doctor may recommend that you take 4 mg per day of folic acid supplements one to three months before trying to get pregnant and throughout the first trimester of pregnancy. Talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
Depending on what your doctor says about your epilepsy, you may also want to change medications before you get pregnant, or it might be fine to stay with the one you are taking now. If you are taking more than one antiseizure drug, your doctor may recommend that you taper down to just one.
If you are making any changes in your antiseizure medications at all, you should do that at least a year before getting pregnant. Switching medications has risks, too. You may not respond well to the new drug and have breakthrough seizures, which could be harmful to a pregnancy. When changing medications, doctors will usually add the new drug before stopping the old one. If you become pregnant during this time, the baby could be exposed to both drugs instead of just one.
You can have a normal pregnancy. Talk to your doctor before you try to get pregnant and they will help choose the safest medication at the lowest dose for seizure control, and for the health of your baby. You may need to change your medication or adjust your dose. Never stop taking your medication without first talking to a doctor. During your pregnancy you will need to see a specialist to monitor your pregnancy and the health of your baby. You may get extra fetal monitoring.
Epilepsy and Labor
Many women with epilepsy worry that they will have a seizure during labor. This is an understandable fear. As your pregnancy progresses, your metabolism changes, leading to lower levels of antiseizure medication in your body. This means that the antiseizure medications in your body will be more diluted. That's why your doctor will be monitoring the levels of medication in your blood throughout your pregnancy, and might increase the dosage if it's getting too low.
So when labor starts, you may already be a little more vulnerable to a seizure. Then, you may miss a dose, because things don't always go exactly according to plan when a woman goes into labor. You will also be in pain and breathing hard, which can increase the chance of a seizure. This doesn't mean that seizures are common during labor and delivery, but they are a possibility.
What happens if you do have a seizure during labor? Your doctor may give you IV medication to stop the seizure. If that doesn't work, you may have to have a cesarean section. Although most women with epilepsy have normal vaginal deliveries, they do have a higher rate of C-sections than other women. Sometimes, anticonvulsant drugs can also reduce the ability of the muscles of your uterus to contract. If this happens, your labor might not progress as well and a C-section may be your best option.
All of these concerns can seem overwhelming, but there's no need to become overly anxious. It's important to be aware of the risks. But it's also important to keep in mind that the vast majority of women with epilepsy get through pregnancy just fine. Your chances of having a healthy child are excellent, especially if you talk with your doctor early and often, follow the advice you are given, and take good care of yourself.