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Are We Medicating Our Kids Less?

Prescription drug rates among preschool-aged kids stabilizes.
Photograph by Getty Images/Fuse

For much of the last decade, there's been quite the debate brewing about whether we're over-medicating our children. And while studies have shown the percentage of kids who were on antipsychotics, stimulants and antidepressants did spike considerably in the mid-2000s, new research says that trend doesn't seem to be growing—at least when it comes to preschoolers.

"I'm very excited that the use of these drugs in this age group seems to be stabilizing," said Dr. Tanya Froehlich, the study's senior author from Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Ohio.

Speaking to Reuters, Froehlich added: "It's good to get a gauge on what we're doing with psychotropic medications in this age group, because we really don't know what these medications do to the developing brain."

Before now, it's been pretty hard to get a full picture of just how many preschool-age kids take prescription drugs; and that's mostly because other studies of its kind have only zeroed in on one type of drug or a small fraction of the population. But this time, researchers went broader. They pulled national data on roughly 43,500 doctor visits made by kids ages 2 to 5 between the years of 1994 and 2009. And their findings are kind of all over the map.

From 1994 to 1997, somewhere around 1 percent of preschoolers diagnosed with a behavioral disorder were handed a prescription. Between 1998 and 2001, that rate dropped to just .8 percent. But between 2002 and 2005, it spiked to 1.5 percent. Finally, between 2006 and 2009, it fell back to 1 percent.

Curiously, at the same time the prescription drug rate stabilized, even more kids under 5 were being diagnosed with behavioral disorders, which suggests docs are increasingly sticking to more natural treatment methods, like therapy. One theory? It may have something to do with a heightened awareness of the side effects most of these drugs bring with them. As Reuters points out, there are countless conditions that have been found in kids who take antipsychotic drugs—two of the major ones being obesity and diabetes—and doctors have been made well aware of this fact over the last few years. But then again, there's also been a lot of backlash against "doping" kids before they even hit kindergarten.

"I think this is an area that has gotten a fair amount of public attention and it could be this is parents and physicians stepping back from a willingness to prescribe these medications," Dr. Mark Olfson, a physician with experience researching medication in children, told Reuters.

Whatever the case, both Froehlich and Olfson agree that more doctors out there should be pumping the brakes on prescribing pills for kids so young. "The thing pediatricians should be asking themselves is, ‘Are we really following the guidelines in treating these children?' which is trying behavioral therapy and then going to the medications," Froehlich said.

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