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What women need to know about how antidepressants could harm unborn babies

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Antidepressant risk during pregnancy

Antidepressant use can be risky to unborn babies. New research from Canada highlights the dangers of antidepressants taken during the first 3 months of pregnancy.


A Université de Montréal study in the British Medical Journal shows birth defects are associated with taking antidepressants during pregnancy.

Multiple risks from antidepressants discovered

Researchers for the study found a commonly prescribed generic antidepressant, citalopram, increased a woman's risk of having a baby born with major birth defects from 5 percent to 8 percent when comparing the risk to pregnant women not taking the medications.

The medication interferes with serotonin uptake to help curb symptoms of depression.

"Serotonin during early pregnancy is essential for the development of all embryonic cells, and thus any insult that disturbs the serotonin signaling process has the potential to result in a wide variety of malformations," the study authors write.

Senior author, Anick Bérard, a professor at UdeM's Faculty of Pharmacy and researcher at its affiliated children's hospital, CHU Sainte-Justine says antidepressants need to be prescribed with caution, also noting the drugs are only minimally effective most of the time.

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They also come with unwanted and sometimes severe side effects.

Other antidepressants were associated with heart, lung, eye, ear, face and neck defects, including paroxetene or Paxil (heart), venlafaxine or Effexor (lung) and tricyclic antidepressants that were linked to the latter birth defects.

The study, published in the journal BMJ Open, looked at 18,487 depressed women in the Quebec Pregnancy Cohort. Of those, 20 percent of women took antidepressants in the first 3-months of pregnancy.
Bérard has been studying antidepressants for over a decade and notes use of the medications had doubled among pregnant women in Quebec from 1998 to 2009.

Previous studies from the author an association between antidepressants taken during pregnancy and:

  • Low birth weight
  • Gestational hypertension
  • Miscarriages
  • Autism

Women in the new study tended to have other health problems, lower income and single. Bérard says many women don't have the resources to see a psychotherapist or the leisure time to exercise regularly as alternatives to taking the drugs.

Journal Reference:

Bérard A, Zhao J, Sheehy O Antidepressant use during pregnancy and the risk of major congenital malformations in a cohort of depressed pregnant women: an updated analysis of the Quebec Pregnancy Cohort BMJ Open 2017;7:e013372. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2016-013372