Study: Antidepressant Use Harmful During Pregnancy

A study co-authored by Harvard professors and researchers has linked antidepressant use during pregnancy to nearly twice the risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder for the unborn child.

Initially, the researchers also found an increased risk of autism spectrum disorders due to prenatal exposure to antidepressants. However, after reevaluating their data, the authors ultimately concluded that this second link was statistically insignificant in their study.

These findings come amid a wider array of research relating to the use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors during pregnancy. SSRI drugs include popular antidepressants, including Prozac, Zoloft, and Selexa. Their potential effects on the unborn child have been acutely studied, due to the fact that 14 percent of pregnant women take antidepressants at some point during their pregnancy.

Doctors have long prescribed that women continue antidepressant use during pregnancy, based on the assumption that the effects of a depressed mother would be more severe than those of any medication.

Yet, a growing body of medical literature is disputing this claim. Three different meta-analyses of available data found that women on antidepressants were more likely to give birth prematurely than depressed woman who were not taking medication.


“Many psychiatrists believe that the risks of the medication are less than the risks of remaining depressed during the pregnancy. However, there has never been a study which has shown a better outcome in women who took medication,” said Dr. Alice D. Domar, a senior staff psychologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and an associate professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Biology at Harvard Medical School.

“Preterm birth can pose significant risks to the baby and there have now been seven studies [on antidepressant use during pregnancy] which suggest a link to autism,” Domar continued.

Domar said that antidepressant use during pregnancy will remain a controversial subject since definitive evidence would require experimental methods that are deemed unethical in the U.S.

Nevertheless, Domar said she supports the exploration of non-pharmacological treatments for depression during pregnancy and regularly counsels women to do the same.

“There are many non-pharmacological treatments which are highly effective in the treatment of depression, including various forms of counseling such as cognitive behavioral therapy, exercise, acupuncture, and even massage. Why not try those first?”’

—Staff writer Arjun S. Byju can be reached at