Taking antidepressants during pregnancy could affect language development in young children

New Canadian research has found that children whose mothers took antidepressants during pregnancy may not be as well-developed in their language and cognition skills by kindergarten as children whose mothers also had depression but who did not take treatment for it.

Carried out by researchers at the University of Manitoba, the new study looked at 3,048 children whose mothers had all experienced a mood or anxiety disorder during pregnancy. To treat the disorder, some of the mothers had taken selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) antidepressants during their pregnancy.

To assess the impact of these antidepressants on children's developmental health, the researchers looked at questionnaire responses completed by the teachers of the children when they reached kindergarten. The questionnaire scored children on five areas -- physical health and well-being; language and cognitive development; social competence; emotional maturity; and community skills and general knowledge -- with children who received a low score, based on the national norms, considered to be developmentally vulnerable.

The findings, published in the journal Pediatrics, showed that children whose mothers took SSRI/SNRI antidepressants while pregnant were more likely to score low in two or more areas on the questionnaire, and in particular had a significant risk of scoring low on language and cognition, than children whose mothers didn't take antidepressants.

Lead author Dr. Deepa Singal commented that over 10 percent of women are prescribed antidepressants while pregnant, and yet despite their fairly widespread use, the new study is one of the first to investigate the relationship between using them during pregnancy and children's neurodevelopment in kindergarten.

As not treating depression can also be harmful for mothers and their unborn children, as pregnant women with depression are less likely to seek proper prenatal care, may not get adequate nutrition or sleep and have an increased risk for postpartum depression and alcohol and substance abuse, Dr. Singal and her team add that women should consult their doctor to ask for treatment advice and for more information to weigh up the risks and benefits of antidepressant use before making a decision on whether to take them while pregnant.

"Our findings raise a concern that these medications are not benign to the developing fetus. This study highlights the importance of presenting a broader approach to managing maternal mental health, especially the consideration of non-pharmacologic approaches," said Singal.

"We all know that at the best of times, mental health resources can be hard to come by for many groups, but our study highlights the particular importance of providing these resources to pregnant women who may want to consider, in consultation with their physicians, the potential side-effects of antidepressant medications," Singal said.