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Great News For Pregnant Women Taking Antidepressants

Photograph by Twenty20

You're having a baby—congratulations! Let the bliss wash over you before hormones take over and destroy those precious memories. Just kidding. (Sort of.)

But what about the rest of us, those relying on pharmaceuticals to get through the day, how do we celebrate knowing the risk that our unborn babies are taking each time we swallow that pill?

Tapering off antidepressants safely takes months, and withdrawals—even in a best-case scenario—can be unbearable. Imagine how intense they are when you find out you are pregnant and quit taking them, cold turkey.

Before making any rash decisions that can lead to serious health issues, you might want to take your mood swing into the backyard and read this.

New research, led by Indiana University, in collaboration with researchers at Karolinska Institute in Sweden and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, suggests that antidepressants taken during early pregnancy DOES NOT increase the risk of their children developing autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association earlier this week after finding significant evidence to back this claim.

"To our knowledge, this is one of the strongest studies to show that exposure to antidepressants during early pregnancy is not associated with autism, ADHD or poor fetal growth when taking into account the factors that lead to medication use in the first place," said Brian D'Onofrio, professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

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"Balancing the risks and benefits of using antidepressants during pregnancy is an extremely difficult decision that every woman should make in consultation with her doctor," he said. "However, this study suggests use of these medications while pregnant may be safer than previously thought."

But hold onto that flashlight, mom, we're not out of the woods just yet.

Though this new discovery is inspiring, it doesn’t come without flaw. After analyzing other data, such as a mother's age at childbearing, in siblings whose mothers used antidepressants during one pregnancy (but not during another pregnancy), researchers found an increased risk for premature birth.

"The ability to compare siblings who were differentially exposed to antidepressants in pregnancy is a major strength of this study," D'Onofrio said. "Most analyses rely upon statistical matching to control for differences in factors such as age, race and socioeconomic status. But it's difficult to know if you've made a perfect match because you can't be certain you have all the relevant measures to control for these differences."

When comparing unrelated children and controlling for related risk factors, the odds were determined to be 1.4 times higher for premature birth, 1.1 times higher for low fetal growth and 1.6 times higher risk for autism and ADHD. Uncontrolled analysis, however, did not consider these factors and showed slightly higher results.

The study examined several different antidepressants, including the most common type: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft) and citalopram (Celexa).

It also took into account antidepressants used by fathers before pregnancy—not during—and found them to be associated with increased risk for autism, ADHD and poor fetal growth. As with the mothers, genetics and environmental circumstances can affect the results of a father's assessment.

Bottom line: We are all wired differently, with circumstances that a study may never fully encompass. Be careful when taking—or weaning yourself off—antidepressants, especially if you're pregnant. You should only do so under a doctor's care and supervision.

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