Will Antidepressants in Pregnancy Give Your Child Depression?

Using antidepressants during pregnancy is a controversial topic for so many reasons. Add this one to the list.

Depressed girl looks at her pregnant mother's belly ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock
We've seen conflicting reports on the safety of antidepressant use during pregnancy. Some say there's no real link between it and certain complications, others tie antidepressant use to those very same issues. But here's another reason antidepressant use might be best avoided during pregnancy: Recent research suggests that children born to mothers who took antidepressants while pregnant are at an increased risk for developing depression themselves. Ironic, isn't it? 

Researchers used data from Finland and found that children who were exposed to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), the most commonly prescribed antidepressants, had greater chances of being diagnosed with depression after age 12 and a 8.2 percent rate of being diagnosed with the condition by age 15. Just 1.9 percent of children born to mothers with psychiatric illness who did not take antidepressants during pregnancy were diagnosed with depression by the same age.

More: Drug-Free Alternatives for Depression During Pregnancy

Animal studies have also found a link between SSRI exposure during early brain development and depression-like behavior in adolescence. This is an incredibly important and topical issue, as SSRIs are much more commonly prescribed now than ever. Today a whopping six percent of pregnant women in the U.S. are on this type of antidepressant.

Researchers looked at the psychiatric diagnoses (including depression, anxiety, autism spectrum disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) of nearly 16,000 women who were prescribed SSRIs. 

"The results are in line with studies in rodents, suggesting that SSRI use during pregnancy increases the risk of offspring depression,'' Heli Malm, M.D., the first author of the study, said. "However, the oldest subjects had only just entered the age of risk for depression, and we know that mood disorders typically emerge after the onset of puberty. Further research is therefore urgently needed to follow these children as they get older to substantiate our findings. Until confirmed, these findings must be balanced against the adverse consequences of untreated maternal depression. While some women with mild to moderate depression may do well coming off antidepressants during pregnancy, severe depression when left untreated can lead to serious consequences in the mother and can have direct and indirect adverse effects on the pregnancy, the fetus, and the child."

More: Could Prenatal Yoga Treat Depression?

So what does this mean for pregnant women who should be on antidepressants? It's tough to say. We hope to see more research on how and why antidepressant exposure can affect a child's mental health—but in the meantime, it's worth discussing the issue with your doctor.