Anxiety in Toddlers Linked to Anti-Depressant Use During Pregnancy

A new study from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, University of Oslo, and the Hospital for Sick Children has found that pregnant women who take anti-depressants might be making their toddler experience anxiety. This means that there needs to be careful and thoughtful consideration before deciding to take anti-depressant medications if you are pregnant, because it could be more harmful to the fetus than previously thought.

toddler science anxietyThe study, which used more than 30,000 siblings from the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study, were followed from the time they were a fetus until they were 3-years-old. The mothers underwent mental health screenings and filled out questionnaires, which was aimed at studying symptoms of depression and anxiety. There were also questions on the form which asked about the mother if she was experiencing severe depression. The researchers still had 14,435 siblings in the study when the children were 3-years-old, so the mothers were then asked to fill out questions about the child’s behavioral development. Most of the questions were around the emotional development of the child, and there were also questions about any medical issues or behavioral issues the children had. This study ran for several years, which means that the researchers were able to follow the mothers and follow each of the children the mother had, which is how so many siblings were able to be used in this study.

What the researchers found was that if the mother took anti-depressant medication while pregnant, the siblings had high levels of anxiety by age 3. There were not any issues with aggression or sleep problems in the siblings, but the impact of the anti-depressant medications specifically showed anxiety among the siblings. The researchers also made sure that family environment and genetics were ruled out as the reasons for the child’s anxiety issues, which meant it was controlled to just the anti-depressant medications being the factor. The study also showed that maternal depression was independently associated with the behavioral problems of the child.

While previous research studies have looked at these types of issues before, this was the first study that showed there is a genetic link between depression and emotional problems in children. Since siblings can share up to 50 percent of the genes from the parent, studying how prenatal anti-depressant usage impacts the siblings can help researchers find out the real percentage of a genetic influence.

Ragnhild Eek Brandlistuen, the lead author of the study, is a researcher at the School of Pharmacy at the University of Oslo, and is also involved with the Division of Mental Health at the NIPH. He said that the results of the study show that anti-depressant use during pregnancy has a significant negative impact on childhood development, regardless of what genetic or environmental factors might be present. The study also factored in the pregnant mother’s possible substance use or use of other medications as a result of the depression, but that was not really an issue in terms of the outcome of the study.

The big take away from this study is that other treatments need to be considered and used first if the woman is pregnant, unless there is a case of severe depression. The women who experienced depression while pregnant also ended up having children with behavioral issues, so it’s both a combination of the anti-depressant medications and the depression itself. There are other ways that women can get treatment for depression while pregnant without using medication, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, among many other types of treatments. In terms of what this study shows, it shows that women who are pregnant need to be more aware of the possibility of negative long-term consequences of their anti-depressant medication use, specifically when it comes to how it will impact their unborn child. If more women would look into other options besides medications, it would go a long way in helping relieve a lot of these symptoms that their young children deal with related to anxiety as a toddler. Women should not be suffering if they are experiencing depression while pregnant, but this study hopefully will give women more to think about before deciding to take medications, and hopefully will help doctors find more appropriate types of care for pregnant women.

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Jeanne Rose
Jeanne Rose lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and has been a freelance writer since 2010. She took Allied Health in vocational school where she earned her CNA/PCA, and worked in a hospital for 3 years. Jeanne enjoys writing about science, health, politics, business, and other topics as well.