By Kirstie Perrotta, MPH, Teratogen Information Specialist, MotherToBaby California
“I’m worried. I can’t sleep. It’s anxiety.” The message came through from Natalie a few minutes after I had logged onto our live chat service at MotherToBaby.org. “I’m 14 weeks pregnant and concerned about taking a SSRI” she continued. As a Teratogen Information Specialist, I answer questions about exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding on a daily basis, and I was happy to chat with Natalie about this topic.
Natalie had just returned from a visit to her OB/GYN’s office where she was diagnosed with anxiety. She had shared with her doctor that she was having trouble eating and sleeping, and was experiencing racing thoughts and constant worry about the future. Natalie’s OB/GYN was concerned that what she was describing was more than the typical pregnancy concerns that many women have. She recommended that Natalie start on an SSRI to help manage her symptoms.
Natalie knew she needed to do something to deal with her anxiety, but she was reluctant to take any medication. “I’ve read online that SSRIs can cause the baby to experience withdrawal symptoms, and I would never want to do anything to hurt my baby!” she quickly typed. “Instead of taking this medication, would it be better for me to just suffer through the next 26 weeks so my baby will be born ok?”
Natalie’s question was not uncommon. Here in the United States, anxiety affects about 6.8 million adults, and women are twice as likely as men to have this mood disorder. Furthermore, about 6% of women will develop anxiety at some point during their pregnancy. Non-medication approaches may be an effective first-line treatment for certain individuals. Some women benefit from daily meditation or exercise. For others, opening up to a friend or attending talk therapy sessions may help. Natalie had tried all of these options in her first trimester, and unfortunately her anxiety was getting worse.
I knew Natalie wanted a quick answer to her question about withdrawal, but I told her that first it was important for us to review just how necessary it was for her to treat her mood disorder. I applauded Natalie for recognizing the symptoms of anxiety, and having an honest conversation with her doctor about how she was feeling. Next, I let her know that many women think that suffering through these feelings during pregnancy may be the best option. However, we know that anxiety can actually cause problems on its own when left untreated. Studies have identified an increased risk for preterm birth (baby born before 37 weeks) and low birth weight when women do not properly treat their anxiety during pregnancy. Women with untreated anxiety may also have more trouble bonding with their baby both during pregnancy and after delivery. Lastly, a personal history of anxiety prior to or during pregnancy is a known risk factor for developing a serious mood disorder after giving birth.
Natalie completely understood the importance of weighing the risks vs. the benefits. Her niece had been born premature and she has seen firsthand just how scary that experience was for her sister. She agreed that treating her anxiety was important.
Natalie’s doctor had recommended that she start on sertraline (Zoloft), which belongs to a class of medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. Other medications in this class include citalopram (Celexa), fluoxetine (Prozac), and paroxetine (Paxil), to name a few. The SSRIs are well studied, which means that we have a good idea of what the effects might be when a woman takes one of these medications during pregnancy. Withdrawal (also known as neonatal adaptation syndrome) is one of those known effects.
Babies of women who are taking an SSRI at the time of delivery may have some difficulties in the first few days of life. Reported symptoms include jitteriness, increased muscle tone, irritability, constant crying, changes in sleeping patterns, tremors, difficulty eating, and problems with breathing. Not every baby will experience these symptoms. For the SSRI medications, it is estimated that 10-30% of babies will be affected.
Some babies with symptoms of withdrawal may need to spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to receive additional care. However, in most cases the symptoms are mild and go away within two weeks. Reassuringly, there does not seem to be a dose-response relationship, which means that women who need a higher amount of medication to manage their anxiety are not expected to have babies who are at a higher risk for withdrawal.
“So these withdrawal issues wouldn’t be expected to cause any long term problems?” Natalie asked. “Not that we’re aware of” I typed back. Research suggests that once the baby has recovered, he or she is not at an increased risk for any lasting issues. “That’s great to hear!” Natalie replied. I told her to inform her OB delivery team and pediatrician should she decide to take this medication throughout pregnancy. That way, they can be prepared to keep an extra close eye on the baby and provide additional care if needed. After all, they’re there to help keep everyone healthy!
“I feel so much better after chatting with you, and I really feel like this withdrawal issue can be managed if I plan ahead” Natalie said. “I think it’s going to be in my baby’s best interest for me to start taking this medication as soon as possible to get my anxiety under control.” I was glad that Natalie had reached out to chat with us about this issue. It can be a complex topic, but certainly not an uncommon one. Now armed with the most current information available, Natalie can make the best choice for her and her baby.
This blog focuses on the effects of SSRIs during pregnancy, but other medications used to treat anxiety (such as benzodiazepines, SNRIs like Effexor, and NDRIs like Wellbutrin) may also exhibit the same withdrawal-like effects. If you’re struggling with anxiety and/or have questions about what the effects of a certain medication may be during pregnancy, please feel free to contact MotherToBaby at 866-626-6847 to learn more.
Kirstie Perrotta, MPH, is a Teratogen Information Specialist at MotherToBaby California. In addition to counseling on both the phone and chat, she is part of MotherToBaby’s Zika Task Force and Education Committee. Kirstie received her Masters in Public Health from the University of San Francisco in 2013, and has worked in the field of reproductive health for over 5 years. She thoroughly enjoys the opportunity to educate pregnant and breastfeeding women on a daily basis.
MotherToBaby is a service of the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS), suggested resources by many agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you have questions about exposures, like medications to treat ADD/ADHD, during pregnancy and breastfeeding, please call MotherToBaby toll-FREE at 866-626-6847 or try out MotherToBaby’s new text information service by texting questions to (855) 999-3525. You can also visit MotherToBaby.org to browse a library of fact sheets about dozens of viruses, medications, vaccines, alcohol, diseases, or other exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding or connect with all of our resources by downloading the new MotherToBaby free app, available on Android and iOS markets.
U.S. anxiety stats: https://www.womenshealth.gov/mental-health/illnesses/generalized-anxiety-disorder.html
Pregnancy anxiety stats: http://www.postpartum.net/learn-more/anxiety-during-pregnancy-postpartum/
Postpartum Anxiety: https://www.anxiety.org/postpartum-anxiety-risk-factors
Medications used to treat anxiety: https://adaa.org/finding-help/treatment/medication