For decades, doctors have warned women about the risks of taking drugs for anxiety and depression while pregnant. Even without mental health concerns, each pregnancy comes with its own laundry list of prohibitions.
If that list includes your medications, you might feel trapped by the fear of birth defects and pregnancy complications, especially if you’re dealing with mental health issues like panic disorder and depression.
“It’s really hard to get through the day without my meds,” said Jenn, 32, a mother-to-be who undergoing treatment for generalized anxiety disorder. “Although, I worry about the risks for my baby.”
But new evidence suggests that using benzodiazepines, like Xanax or Valium, may not be as harmful as you might think.
In the 1970s, a number of studies suggested that benzodiazepine use during the first trimester could lead to an increased risk of facial clefts, heart defects, and other disorders. Diazepam (Valium) and chlordiazepoxide (Librium) were the most often-cited culprits.
However, more recently, researchers have shown no clear connection between this class of drugs and the risk of birth defects.
In fact, a new study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that the use of these drugs has a much smaller impact on the risk of adverse events than previously believed.
The study, conducted by Dr. Kimberly Yonkers, followed over 2,600 women through their pregnancies to learn the effects of benzodiazepine and SSRI anti-depressants on birth outcomes.
What Dr. Yonkers found might surprise you. Although the impact was not negligible, it wasn’t as high as you might expect.
According to the study, newborns born to mothers using the drugs were about 3.41 times more likely to have a low birth weight. Although that might sound like a big jump, consider the fact that already about 8% of infants are born with a low birth weight.
Similarly, the newborns in the study were 2.85 times more likely to need ventilator support after birth if their mothers used benzodiazepine during pregnancy. Again, compare this figure to the 10% of infants born in the U.S. annually who need breathing assistance.
Dr. Yonkers said that they also found a “quite modest” decrease in the duration of the pregnancy – an average of 3.6 days.
She found similar effects for women treated with SSRI antidepressants, like Zoloft and Paxil.
Yonkers hopes that her study will help women and doctors to make better-informed health and mental healthcare decisions. She says that her findings affirm that women who take medication for anxiety or panic disorders shouldn’t necessarily stop treatment if they become pregnant.
As with any medical decision, women and their doctors should weigh the risks and benefits of continuing treatment. It’s a “tricky balance,” she says. But, “it should be reassuring that we’re not seeing a huge magnitude of an effect here.”