Treatment for ADHD among women of reproductive age is increasingly common. That means we need to know whether ADHD medications have any tendency to increase the risk of birth defects.
Treatment for ADHD among women of reproductive age is increasingly common.
That means we need to know whether ADHD medications have any tendency to increase the risk of birth defects. Previous studies have looked mostly at ADHD medications that are central nervous system stimulants, especially methylphenidate and amphetamines.
Atomoxetine is the most widely prescribed non-stimulant for treating ADHD. It acts indirectly, by selectively inhibiting the removal of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that mobilizes the brain and body for action.
To explore whether atomoxetine might be associated with any higher risk of birth defects, an international study team examined nationwide population data from four Nordic countries with universal single-payer health insurance systems – Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland – along with nationwide data from the U.S. Medicaid system, which is likewise single-payer, and covers roughly half of all births in the U.S.
They compared the prevalence of major birth defects among infants born to women exposed to atomoxetine in the first trimester (three months) of pregnancy to the prevalence among infants born to women not exposed to any ADHD drug during the period beginning three months before their last menstrual period and concluding at the end of the first trimester.
The team adjusted for maternal characteristics such as maternal age, calendar year of delivery, childbirth and medical characteristics, psychiatric conditions, high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, obesity, and smoking.
In more than 2.4 million births in the four Nordic countries, and almost 1.8 million births in the U.S., there was absolutely no sign of increased prevalence of major infant malformations among infants born to mothers taking atomoxetine.
More specifically looking at heart defects, there was again no significant association with maternal atomoxetine use, either in the Nordic population, the U.S. population, or the combined populations.
For limb malformations, there was again no significant association between maternal atomoxetine use and birth defects in the combined populations. There was an appearance of a significant association in the Nordic population, but that was based on only 5 instances, and because there were zero instances in the U.S. population, there was no net association at all in the combined population of more than 4.2 million.
The team concluded, “We found no increased prevalence of major congenital malformations overall associated with atomoxetine use in early pregnancy. The increased prevalence of limb malformations in the Nordic countries was not observed in the US. … Given the low absolute risk of both of these outcomes, these results are reassuring from a public health perspective and provide important information in the consideration of whether to continue treatment with atomoxetine during pregnancy.”
Organophosphate pesticides were originally developed as nerve agents for chemical warfare, then used in lower doses as insecticides.
Organophosphate pesticides were originally developed as nerve agents for chemical warfare, then used in lower doses as insecticides.
Their neurotoxicity raises the possibility of effects on development of the nervous system at lower doses, including psychiatric disorders.
Previous studies have found mixed results for any association with ADHD.
Norway has a single-payer health insurance system that covers virtually the entire population, facilitating nationwide population studies.
A primarily Norwegian study team used the Norwegian Mother, Father, and Child Cohort Study, a prospective population-based cohort that enrolled participants between 1999 and 2008 to explore possible associations. The study invited all 227,702 pregnant mothers to enroll, of which 112,908 (41%) actually enrolled.
Children were eligible for the present study if they were born after 2002, did not have Down’s syndrome or cerebral palsy, had available maternal biospecimens, were the result of a singleton pregnancy, and lived near Oslo (the location of the clinic). That left a sample of 24,035.
The team used the Norwegian Patient Registry (NPR) to identify diagnosed cases of ADHD.
From the final eligible population, the team randomly selected 552 mother-child pairs to represent the exposure distribution in the population of pregnancies that gave rise to the cases of ADHD.
At about 17 weeks into pregnancy, maternal spot urine samples were collected at the mother’s first ultrasound appointment. These samples were then tested for concentrations of organophosphate metabolites (breakdown chemicals).
Adjustments were made for a variety of possible confounding variables: season, birth year, maternal education, vegetable intake, fruit intake, maternal self-reported ADHD, financial status, other organophosphorus pesticides, and sex.
Comparing higher versus lower maternal exposures to organophosphates, no significant differences emerged in rates of ADHD diagnosis among offspring.
Now that ADHD pharmaceuticals are among the most widely prescribed medications during pregnancy, we need to be aware of any long-term harms to offspring from in utero exposure.
Now that ADHD pharmaceuticals are among the most widely prescribed medications during pregnancy, we need to be aware of any long-term harms to offspring from in-utero exposure.
Denmark has a single-payer public health care system that encompasses virtually its entire population. Combined with national registers that track demographic as well as health data for the whole population, this makes it easy to do population-wide studies.
Availing itself of these registers, an international study team looked at all 1,068,073 single births from 1998 to 2015. It then followed all these individuals through the end of 2018, or until any developmental diagnosis, death, or emigration, whichever came first.
The team compared children of mothers who continued ADHD medication (methylphenidate, amphetamine, dexamphetamine, lisdexamphetamine, modafinil, atomoxetine, clonidine) during pregnancy with children of mothers who discontinued ADHD medication before pregnancy. There were 898 of the former and 1,270 of the latter in the cohort.
To reduce the influence of potential confounding variables, the team adjusted for maternal age, parity, maternal psychiatric history, in- or outpatient admission to psychiatric ward within two years prior to pregnancy and until delivery, use of other psychotropic medications during pregnancy, number of hospitalizations during pregnancy not related to psychiatry, smoking during pregnancy, living alone, education, birthyear, and psychiatric history of the father.
Children exposed in utero to ADHD medication were found to be at no greater risk of any developmental impairment.
The timing of the exposure by trimester of pregnancy made no difference. Neither did the duration of exposure.
Neither children exposed to stimulant medications (methylphenidate, amphetamine, dexamphetamine, lisdexamphetamine, modafinil) nor to non-stimulants (atomoxetine, clonidine) were at greater risk of any developmental impairment.
Focusing more narrowly on specific impairments, children exposed in utero to ADHD medication were no more likely to be autistic. They were more likely to have ADHD, but the association did not reach statistical significance.
Children exposed in utero to ADHD medication were also no more likely to develop hearing or cerebral vision impairment or febrile seizures or a growth impairment. Surprisingly, they were 40% less likely to become epileptic, the only statistically significant association found in the study.
The authors concluded, “Our results are important because stimulant medications are critical for many adults, including women of childbearing age, to perform their essential functions at work, home, and school. Pregnant women who depend on stimulants for daily functioning must weigh the potential of exposing their fetus to unknown developmental risks against potential medical, financial, and other consequences to both mother and child that are associated with exacerbation of ADHD symptoms when stopping the medication, such as inability to maintain employment and unsafe driving. The present study provides reassurance that several essential categories of child outcomes that could reasonably be suspected to be affected by stimulants, including body growth, neurodevelopment, and seizure risk, do not differ based on antenatal stimulant exposure. Future studies would benefit from larger sample sizes making it possible to conduct stratified analyses on ADHD medication type.”
Although all potential confounding factors have not been ruled out, these findings add to a growing body of evidence that suggests that certain ASMs (i.e., lamotrigine) may be safer than others in pregnancy.
Roughly five of every thousand women (0.5%) have epilepsy, a neurological disorder characterized by sudden recurrent episodes of sensory disturbance, loss of consciousness, or convulsions, associated with abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Primary treatment consists of anti-seizure medications (ASMs).
Yet, research has shown that ASMs cross the human placenta. In rodents, ASMs have been shown to lead to abnormal neuronal development, and some research has pointed to the risk of adverse birth outcomes and neurodevelopmental disorders in humans. But samples have been too small for reliable conclusions, and in most cases confounding factors are not addressed.
For a more comprehensive evaluation of risk from ASMs, an international team of researchers examined a nationwide cohort using Swedish national registers that track health outcomes for virtually the entire population.
Using the Medical Birth Register, the National Patient Register, and the Multi-Generation Register, they were able to identify 14,614 children born from 1996-to 2011 to mothers with epilepsy.
Through the prescribed Drug Register, they also examined the first-trimester use of anti-seizure medications (ASMs) by these mothers. The three most frequently used ASMs "frequent enough to yield useful data“ were valproic acid, lamotrigine, and carbamazepine.
The researchers identified ADHD in offspring in one of two ways: ICD-10 (international classification of Diseases, 10th Revision) diagnoses, or filled prescriptions of ADHD medication.
Finally, they consulted the Integrated Database for Labor Market Research and the Education Register to explore potential confounding variables. These included maternal and paternal age at birth, the highest education, cohabitation status, and country of origin. They also included maternal and paternal disposable income in the year of birth and a measure of neighborhood deprivation.
Using the medical registers, they considered parental psychiatric and behavioral problems diagnosed before pregnancy, including bipolar disorder, suicide attempt, schizophrenia diagnosis, substance use disorder, and criminal convictions. They adjusted for inpatient diagnosis of seizures in the year before pregnancy to capture and adjust for indication severity.
Other covariates explored included year of birth, birth order, child sex, maternal-reported smoking during pregnancy, and use of other psychotropic medications.
After fully adjusting for all these confounders, children of mothers who were taking valproic acid were more than 70% more likely to develop ADHD than those of mothers not taking an anti-seizure medicine during pregnancy. The sample size was 699, and the 95% confidence interval stretched from 28% to 138% more likely to develop ADHD.
By contrast, children of mothers who were taking lamotrigine were at absolutely no greater risk(Hazard Ratio = 1) of developing ADHD than those of mothers not taking an anti-seizure medicine during pregnancy.
Finally, children of mothers who were taking carbamazepine were 18% more likely to develop ADHD than those of mothers not taking an anti-seizure medicine during pregnancy, but this result was not statistically significant (the 95% confidence interval ranged from 9% less likely to 52% more likely).
The authors concluded, "The present study did not find support for a causal association between maternal use of lamotrigine in pregnancy and ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder] and ADHD in children. We observed an elevated risk of ASD and ADHD related to maternal use of valproic acid, while associations with carbamazepine were weak and not statistically significant. Although we could not rule out all potential confounding factors, our findings add to a growing body of evidence that suggests that certain ASMs (i.e., lamotrigine) may be safer than others in pregnancy."
Preschool children who were never breastfed as infants are much more likely to have a medical diagnosis of ADHD than are children who were exclusively breastfed as infants.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of infancy and continuation of breastfeeding for at least a year thereafter. Yet less than a third of U.S. mothers are still breastfeeding their infants at 12 months.
Previous studies have suggested that breastfeeding is associated with a lower risk of ADHD. But sample sizes have been small, and have not sufficiently explored confounding factors.
Using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2011-2012 National Survey of Children's Health, a research team analyzed data from a representative U.S. sample of 12,793 three- to five-year-old children.
The team excluded children with autism, developmental delays, speech problems, Tourette syndrome, epilepsy or seizure disorder, hearing problems, non-correctable vision problems, bone/joint/muscle problems, brain injury/concussion, or any current behavioral/conduct problems other than ADHD.
The team also adjusted for potential confounders. Some were demographic: sex, age, race, household income, the number of adults older than 18 years of age living in the home, and the number of children younger than the age of 18 years living in the home. Other variables related to health care access and delivery: insurance type, consistency of health insurance in the past 12 months, and a composite variable reflecting having a primary care provider, getting needed referrals, and effective care coordination. Exposure to secondhand smoke and preterm births were other key variables.
In the fully adjusted results, children who had been breastfed for at least six months were 62% less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than those who had not (p = .0483). Moreover, each month of breastfeeding duration was associated with a significant additional 8% reduction in the odds of an ADHD diagnosis (95% confidence interval from 1% to 14%).
The authors concluded, "Preschool children who were never breastfed as infants were much more likely to have a medical diagnosis of ADHD than were children who were exclusively breastfed. Moreover, there seems to be a continuum of neuroprotective benefits associated with breastfeeding duration. Although these analyses cannot establish a causal relationship, our findings add to a growing body of literature-including several longitudinal studies and a meta-analysis-that suggests breastfeeding may reduce the likelihood of a child having later problems with inattention and/or hyperactivity. Although follow-up studies are needed to further examine the relationship between infant feeding and ADHD, these findings provide evidence to support the neurodevelopmental benefits of breastfeeding."
Bilirubin is an orange-yellow pigment formed in the liver by the breakdown of hemoglobin and excreted in bile. Elevated levels in blood serum can cause jaundice, a yellowing of the skin, or whites of the eyes.
More than one in twenty Swedish newborns are treated for neonatal jaundice, which is particularly common among preterm babies. It is usually benign.
A team of Swedish researchers used e Swedish Medical Birth Register, which contains information on all children born in the country, to identify all 814,420 single births without birth defects between 1992 and 2000, and followed them until 2009. They then identified instances of neonatal jaundice and of ADHD through linked nationwide medical registers.
The team also identified a sub-sample of full siblings (384,290 children from 181,354 families) in order to control for shared familial traits.
In the unadjusted results, children with any kind of neonatal jaundice were 38% more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. After adjustment for known confounding variables, two-thirds of the association disappeared, with a residual increased risk of 13%.
There are, however, two types of neonatal jaundice: hemolytic and non-hemolytic. Hemolytic jaundice is typically caused by the mother's immune system mistaking the fetus' red blood cells as a threat, and responding by attacking with antibodies, rupturing and destroying the cells.
The study found no association between hemolytic jaundice and ADHD, either in the raw results or after adjusting for known confounders. Unsurprisingly, there was also no association in the sibling comparison.
That meant that all the association was concentrated among children born with non-hemolytic jaundice, who in the crude results were 43% more likely to subsequently develop ADHD. Adjusting for known confounders again reduced the association by two-thirds, to 14%. But among siblings, that association vanished altogether. Children born with non-hemolytic jaundice were no more likely than their non-jaundiced siblings to develop ADHD.
The authors concluded that "neonatal jaundice is not likely a causal risk factor for ADHD."
Hyperthyroidism, an overactive thyroid gland, occurs in about one in five hundred women. It has been tied to adverse effects in both mother and fetus, including pre-eclampsia (a condition in pregnancy characterized by high blood pressure, sometimes with fluid retention and excessive protein in the urine, which can indicate kidney damage), preterm delivery, heart failure, and in uteri retardation of growth.
In hypothyroidism, on the other hand, thyroid activity is abnormally low, which retards growth and mental development. It is particularly common in regions with widespread iodine deficiency. Depending on the region, it affects one in three hundred to one in thirty women. Maternal hypothyroidism is associated with an increased risk of pre-eclampsia, premature separation of the placenta from the wall of the uterus, miscarriage, in uteri growth retardation, and fetal death.
The fetus relies on maternal thyroid hormones until its own thyroid function initiates halfway through pregnancy. As we have just seen, this direct link in the early stages of pregnancy has serious consequences described above. Does it also affect the risk of developing ADHD in offspring?
A team of researchers based in Hong Kong reformed a comprehensive search of the peer-reviewed medical literature on this subject. It then conducted two meta-analyses, one examining maternal hyperthyroidism during pregnancy, the other on maternal hypothyroidism.
The meta-analysis for maternal hyperthyroidism during pregnancy combined two nationwide cohort studies with a total of over 3.1 million persons, using the Danish and Norwegian medical registries. It found a slight but significant association with ADHD in offspring.
The meta-analysis for maternal hypothyroidism during pregnancy included the same two nationwide cohort studies, plus an Israeli nationwide cohort study (along with a tiny U.S. cohort study), with a total of over 3.4 million persons. It likewise found a slight but significant association with ADHD in offspring.
Though the component studies did some assessment of confounders, the authors of the meta-analyses noted, "By including a more comprehensive range of confounding factors and biologically relevant covariate (e.g. thyroxine treatment), future studies are warranted to re-visit the association between maternal thyroid dysfunction and various health outcomes in offspring."
Folic acid, also known as folate, is an essential vitamin(B-9). Inadequate dietary folate has been associated with abnormal fetal brain development. That suggests a deficiency could contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders, including ADHD.
If so, could folic acid supplementation for pregnant mothers help avoid ADHD in offspring?
A Chinese study team conducted a systematic search of the peer-reviewed medical journal literature looking for studies exploring neurodevelopmental effects associated with such supplementation.
It identified six studies that specifically looked for associations with offspring ADHD. A meta-analysis of these studies encompassing a total of 29,634 participants found a 14% (one in seven) reduction in the odds of ADHD in the offspring of mothers taking folate supplementation as opposed to children of mothers not doing so.
There was no sign of either publication bias or between-study heterogeneity.
The authors concluded, "Our meta-analysis indicated that appropriate maternal FA supplementation may have positive effects on offspring's neurodevelopmental outcomes, including improved intellectual development and reduced risk of autism traits, ADHD, behavioral, and language problems."
Given that folate is an essential vitamin in the first place, this suggests ensuring that pregnant women supplement their diet with folic acid. The authors further counseled, "However, further high-quality studies on this topic are needed to confirm the optimal dosage and the right time of FA supplementation and to investigate the underlying mechanisms."
Two new studies, examining entire nationwide populations on opposite sides of the world, have just reported findings on the association between hypertensive disorders of pregnancy (HDP) and subsequent ADHD in off spring. HDP includes chronic hypertension, pre-eclampsia, pre-eclampsia superimposed on chronic hypertension, and gestational hypertension.
According to the Mayo Clinic, Preeclampsia is a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure and signs of damage to another organ system, most often the liver and kidneys. Preeclampsia usually begins after 20 weeks of pregnancy in women whose blood pressure had been normal. Left untreated, it can lead to serious complications for both mother and baby and can be fatal. This range of conditions affects more than one in twenty pregnancies worldwide. HDP hampers permeability of the placenta, which may reduce delivery of blood-borne oxygen and nutrients to the fetus, potentially affecting brain development. ADHD could thus theoretically emerge as a neurodevelopmental outcome.
To what extent is this borne out in national-wide population studies? Both Taiwan and Sweden have single-payer national health insurance systems that systematically track virtually every resident. One study team used the Taiwan National Health Insurance research database to examine a cohort of 877,233 children born between 2004 and 2008. The other study team used the Swedish national registers to explore a cohort of 1,085,024 individuals born between 1987 and 1996.
The Taiwanese study adjusted for the following covariate/confounders: year of birth, fetal sex, paternal age, maternal age, family income, urbanization level, maternal diabetes diagnosis, preterm birth, small for gestational age, and parental psychiatric disorders. The Swedish study adjusted for the calendar year of birth, offspring sex, maternal age, parity, height, body mass index, smoking, presentational diabetes, parental educational level, occupation, and marital status. In the Taiwanese population, children of mothers with hypertensive disorders during pregnancy were about 20% more likely to develop ADHD than those of mothers without such disorders. There was no significant difference between chronic hypertension and pregnancy-induced hypertension/pre-eclampsia.
In the Swedish population, children of mothers with hypertensive disorders during pregnancy were about 10% more likely to develop ADHD than those of mothers without such disorders. But the Swedish study also went a step further. It is incredibly difficult to identify all significant confounding variables. But if you have a large enough study population, one can examine the effect of restricting the analysis to siblings within the same families. In that way, one can control in large measure for familial confounding “ shared environment and heredity. In the subsample of siblings “ 1,279 exposed to HDP versus 1,607 not exposed “ those exposed to outerwear were 9% more likely to develop ADHD, but this outcome was not statistically significant.
Noting the reduced statistical power of the subsample, the authors nonetheless concluded, the magnitude of these associations might be too weak(for ADHD in particular) to be considered an important risk factor at the level of the general population Moreover, in a separate cohort of 285,901 Swedish men born between 1982 and 1992 who attended assessments for military conscription, mildly lower cognitive scores among those exposed to HDP in uteri vanished altogether (mean difference = 0) when limited to comparisons between full siblings (1,917 exposed versus 2,044 not exposed).
The CDC recently reported that ADHD medication use in women ages 15 to 44 increased from 0.9 percent to 4 percent from 2003 to 2015. The most commonly used medications were formulations of amphetamine or methylphenidate.
This increase in treatment for ADHD suggests that educational programs such as adhdinadults.com have been effective in teaching clinicians how to identify and treat the disorder. The 4 percent rate reported by the CDC is encouraging because it is close to what Ron Kessler and colleagues reported as the prevalence of adult ADHD in the population. CDC correctly points out that little is known about the effects of ADHD medications on pregnancies. Thus, caution is warranted.
Oei et al.'s review of amphetamines concluded: "There is little evidence of amphetamine-induced neurotoxicity and long-term neurodevelopmental impact, as data is scarce and difficult to extricate from the influence of other factors associated with children living in households where one or more parent uses drugs in terms of poverty and neglect. ... We suggest that exposed children may be at risk of ongoing developmental and behavioral impediment, and recommend that efforts be made to improve early detection of perinatal exposure and to increase the provision of early intervention services for affected children and their families"
Bolea-Alamanac et al.'s review of methylphenidate effects concluded: "There is a paucity of data regarding the use of methylphenidate in pregnancy and further studies are required. Although the default medical position is to interrupt any non-essential pharmacological treatment during pregnancy and lactation, in ADHD this may present a significant risk. Doctors need to evaluate each case carefully before interrupting treatment." These words of caution should be heeded by clinicians caring for women of reproductive age.
Roughly one in thirty adult women have ADHD. Research results indicate that psychostimulants (methylphenidate and amphetamines) offer the most effective course of treatment in most instances. But during pregnancy, such treatment also exposes the fetus to these drugs. Several studies have set out to determine whether such exposure is harmful.
The largest comparison was 5,571 infants exposed to amphetamines and 2,072 exposed to methylphenidate with unexposed infants. It found no increased risks for adverse outcomes due to amphetamine or methylphenidate exposures. Another study studied 3,331 infants exposed to amphetamines, 1,515 exposed to methylphenidate, and 453 to atomoxetine. Comparing these infants to unexposed infants, it found a slightly increased risk of preeclampsia, with an adjusted risk ratio of 1.29 (95% CI 1.11-1.49), but no statistically significant effect for placental abruption, small gestational age, and preterm birth. When assessing the two stimulants, amphetamine, and methylphenidate, together, it found a small increased risk of preterm birth, with an adjusted risk ratio of 1.3 (95% CI 1.10-1.55). There was a statistically significant effect for preeclampsia, placental abruption, or small gestational age. Atomoxetine use was free of any indication of increased risk.
Another study involving 1,591 infants exposed to ADHD medication (mostly methylphenidate) during pregnancy, reported increased risks associated with exposure. The adjusted odds ratio for admission to a neonatal intensive care unit was 1.5 (95% CI 1.3-1.7), and for the central nervous system, disorders were 1.9 (95% CI 1.1-3.1). There was no increased risk for congenital malformations or perinatal death.
Six studies focused on methylphenidate exposure. Two, with a combined total of 402 exposed infants, found no increased risk for malformations. Another, with 208 exposed infants, found a slightly greater risk of cardiovascular malformations, but it was not statistically significant. A fourth, with 186 exposed infants, found no increased risk of malformations but did find a higher rate of miscarriage, with an adjusted hazard ratio of 1.98(95% CI 1.23-3.20). A fifth, with 480 exposed infants, also found a higher rate of miscarriage, with an odds ratio of 2.07 (95% CI 1.51-2.84). But although the sixth, with 382 exposed infants, likewise found an increased risk of miscarriage (adjusted relative risk 1.55 with 95% CI1.03-2.06), it also found an identical risk for women with ADHD who were not on medication during their pregnancies (adjusted relative risk 1.56with 95% CI 1.11-2.20). That finding suggests that all women with ADHD have a higher risk of miscarriage, and that methylphenidate exposure is not the causal factor.
Summing up, while some studies have shown increased adverse effects among infants exposed to maternal ADHD medications, most have not. There are indications that higher rates of miscarriage are associated with maternal ADHD rather than fetal exposure to psychostimulant medications. One study did find a small increased risk of central nervous system disorders and admission to a neonatal intensive care unit. But, again, we do not know whether that was due to exposure to psychostimulant medication or associated with maternal ADHD. If there is a risk, it appears to be a small one.
The question then becomes how to balance that as yet uncertain risk against the disadvantage of discontinuing the effective psychostimulant medication. As the authors of this review conclude. It [ADHD] is associated with significant psychiatric comorbidities for women, including depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, driving safety impairment, and occupational impairment. The gold standard treatment includes behavioral therapy and stimulant medication, namely methylphenidate and amphetamine derivatives. Psychostimulant use during pregnancy continues to increase and has been associated with a small increased relative risk of a range of obstetric concerns. However, the absolute increases in risks are small, and many of the best studies to date are confounded by other medication use and medical comorbidities.
Thus, women with moderate-to-severe ADHD should not necessarily be counseled to suspend their ADHD treatment based on these findings. They advise that when functional impairment from ADHD is moderate to severe, the benefits of stimulant medications may outweigh the small known and unknown risks of medication exposure, and that "If a decision is made to take ADHD medication, women should be informed of the known risks and benefits of the medication use in pregnancy, and take the lowest therapeutic dose possible."
Many media outlets have reported on a study suggesting that mothers who use acetaminophen during pregnancy may put their unborn child at risk for ADHD. Given that acetaminophen is used in many over-the-counter painkillers, correctly reporting such information is crucial. As usual, rather than relying on one study, looking at the big picture using all available studies is best. Because it is not possible to examine this issue with a randomized trial, we must rely on naturalistic studies.
One registry study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24566677)reported that fetal exposure to acetaminophen predicted an increased risk of ADHD with a risk ratio of 1.37. The risk was dose-dependent, in the sense that it increased with increased maternal use of acetaminophen. Of particular note, the authors made sure that their results were not accounted for by potential confounds (e.g., maternal fever, inflammation, and infection). Similar results were reported by another group (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25251831), which also showed that the risk for ADHD was not predicted by maternal use of aspirin, antacids, or antibiotics. But that study only found an increased risk at age 7 (risk ratio = 2.0) not at age 11. In a Spanish study, (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27353198), children exposed prenatally to acetaminophen were more likely to show symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity later in life. The risk ratio was small (1.1) but it increased with the frequency of prenatal acetaminophen use by their mothers.
We can draw a few conclusions from these studies. There does seem to be aweak, yet real, the association between maternal use of acetaminophen while pregnant and subsequent ADHD or ADHD symptoms in the exposed child. The association is weak in several ways: there are not many studies, they are all naturalistic, and the risk ratios are small. So mothers that have used acetaminophen during pregnancy and have an ADHD child should not conclude that their acetaminophen usecausedtheir child's ADHD. On the other hand, pregnant women who are considering the use of acetaminophen for fever or pain should discuss other options with their physician. As with many medical decisions, one must balance competing for risks to make an informed decision.
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