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The majority of moms-to-be—about 90 percent—take at least one medication during their pregnancies. Additionally, more than two-thirds of pregnant women take a prescription medication during the first trimester, a crucial period of fetal development when medications are more likely to affect your baby.
Why the increase in use? It’s partly due to medical advances. We now have more effective medications to treat such conditions as depression, chronic pain, diabetes and high blood pressure. Add to that the fact that women are having babies later in life, when they may be more likely to suffer from illnesses that require medication. Additionally, with the thalidomide disaster of the 1960s a distant memory (reminder: the anti-nausea drug caused deformities in thousands of babies), women may be lulled into thinking that many medications, especially over-the-counter drugs and herbal treatments, are safe to take while pregnant.
Among medications approved in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010, more than 79 percent had no published data on their risk to the developing fetus, and 98 percent had some data but not enough to pass judgment on their safety. “The reality is that for a lot of medicines, there is limited data to assess the risk of birth defects,” says Cheryl Broussard, Ph.D., an epidemiologist with the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
That doesn’t mean all drugs are unsafe to take during pregnancy. “What does lack of data mean? It simply means a lack of data,” says Siobhan Dolan, M.D., associate professor of obstetrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City and an adviser to the March of Dimes. Experts say you shouldn’t necessarily stop taking medications if you’re pregnant or trying to conceive. Some drugs are important to your health or mental health and despite their risks are safer for you to take than not take. “If you consider a condition such as depression, there are risks to being depressed while pregnant, so it’s about weighing the risks and benefits of the medication,” says Dolan.