Are SSRIs really safe during pregnancy?

As most people know these days, SSRI stands for “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor,” an acronym for a class of antidepressant medications that includes Prozac, Paxil, Celexa, and others. These drugs have become among the most widely prescribed in our country, but only recently have studies surfaced that question their safety for long-term use or for use in children.

These drugs are also considered safe – and are often prescribed – to pregnant women. As it turns out, this assumption of safety is based on cursory studies that only looked at major outcomes, such as physical growth, and complications that would be evident in medical records.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina studied 17 full-term newborns whose mothers had taken an SSRI and compared them to an equal number of infants whose mothers had not taken these medications (Pediatrics, 2004 Feb; 113 (2): 368-75). Unlike previous studies, this one focused specifically on neurobehavioral development. They found that infants previously exposed to SSRI’s were more likely to suffer from nervousness, startles, and sleep disturbances. Although this was a limited and very short-term study, it does raise legitimate suspicions that these drugs are not so safe after all. Larger and longer-term studies are now needed to shed light on exactly what these medications do to developing brains.

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