Home > Got Questions?, Science > Can my taking medication during pregnancy cause autism in my baby?

Can my taking medication during pregnancy cause autism in my baby?

This week’s “Got Questions?” response comes from Alycia Halladay, PhD, Autism Speaks’ director of research for environmental science

Last month, a group of California researchers reported an increased risk of autism among babies whose mothers took a certain catergory of antidepressant medications–selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)—during the first trimester of pregnancy. You may know these drugs by such brand names as Prozac, Effexor, Paxil, and Celexa.

So what do these results mean for pregnant women? First, caution is needed before rushing to judgment. The study was relatively small, and the increase in the risk of autism was modest. So more study is clearly needed to confirm the link and clarify how great a risk, if any, is associated with a mother using this type of antidepressant during pregnancy.

Further caution is needed because the effects of a mother’s anxiety and depression during pregnancy and early infancy are well known. In fact, it’s not clear whether the autism risk associated with taking antidepressants during pregnancy is, in fact, related to the women’s depression rather than the drugs themselves.

For these reason, many doctors have argued that the benefits of SSRIs outweigh concerns about risks that SSRI exposure may pose to a fetus or infant during pregnancy and nursing. Clearly, more research is needed.

Beyond SSRIs, researchers have looked at several other medications to see if their use during pregnancy increases the risk that a baby will go on to develop autism. Among the most thoroughly researched is the anti-seizure medication valproic acid (U.S. brand name Depakote). Studies show that, as a group, children whose mothers take valproic acid during their first trimester of pregnancy are more likely to develop an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) than are children who are not exposed.

Autism Speaks has supported research into how valproic acid might contribute to the development of ASDs. Through the study of donated brain tissue, for example, we have learned that individuals with autism share some “neuropathologies,” or altered brain features, with those who were exposed to valproic acid before birth. In addition, several studies show that exposure to valproic acid during critical periods of brain development can produce autism-like behaviors in animal models.

So the good news is that our research has deepened understanding about how valproic acid during pregnancy can contribute to the development of ASDs. The bad news is that it can be quite dangerous for women with epilepsy to stop taking this medication during pregnancy—owing to their increased risk of seizures. As a result, such decisions should be made carefully with a physician can discuss alternative drugs.

Findings are still emerging with other medications given during pregnancy. For instance, relatively small studies (such as this one) suggest an increased risk for ASD in babies whose mothers were given the medication terbutaline to stop premature labor. Another small study suggested increased risk of autism related to women taking high doses of the anti-ulcer drug misoprostol early in pregnancy. (This drug is also used to induce labor later in pregnancy.) But in many cases, such preliminary research has yet to move past the “interesting” stage to reach enough certainty to change medical practices.

Other, larger studies hint at an increased risk of autism in the babies of women who take certain broad classes of medications such as antipsychotics or mood stabilizers during pregnancy. Still the question remains: Is the autism risk due to the medications or to the underlying medical conditions that the drugs are being used to treat?

Beyond medications, studies have revealed a number of other pregnancy complications and events that appear to contribute to the risk that a baby will go on to develop autism.  These include the pregnant mother’s exposure to toxic chemicals, infections such as flu, and her diet and nutrition at the time of conception as well as during pregnancy.

Autism Speaks continues to fund a number of important studies looking at autism risk factors during pregnancy. If you have at least one child already diagnosed with an ASD, find out more about participating in the EARLI study (link at left) before or at the start of your next pregnancy. Or consider enrolling your child and family in the CHARGE study, which looks at risk factors before, during, and after your child’s birth.

We will be continuing to update you on the science as it emerges.  If you have any concerns about the medications you are taking during pregnancy, please discuss them with your doctor. For more resources, we also recommend the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists.

  1. Sarah
    September 2, 2011 at 6:59 am


  2. September 2, 2011 at 10:54 am

    MY question is can being premature with a lack of oxygen at birth be the cause of autism? Also could autism develop later or are all kids born with this disorder?

    • Michelle
      September 2, 2011 at 11:36 pm

      I didn’t take any antidepressants nor was I depressed. My son was breach, delivered via emergency C-section. The doctors kept telling me that he was not breach when I kept telling them that I could feel his head under my rib cage. He was stuck there and had my rib imprint in his head. Right after the c-section he quit breathing. He was getting oxygen from a respirator but was unresponsive for several minutes. There has been several studies that showed that there are a lot of kids that have autism also had a lack of oxygen at birth. There may be many reasons for autism, maybe that’s why it is a spectrum. I’m sick of the mommy blame.

  3. Tug Boat
    September 2, 2011 at 10:55 am

    Has a study been done on women who took Heprin injection during pregnacy having kids w/ autism?

    • Blue
      September 6, 2011 at 12:49 pm

      Is that an injection to prevent clots? I took Lovenox all througout my pregnancy and my child has autism.

    • December 20, 2011 at 12:26 pm

      I took Lovenox while pregnant due to a Factor V blood clotting disorder. My 1st one has no issues what so ever because I didn’t take it with her. I had a blood clot in my brain after i had her. My 2 pregnancies after I had to take injections of Lovenox and I am thinking my middle child is Autistic. She had been diagnosed with ADD/AHD, Sensory Integration disorder, OCD tendencies and Pica. All different diagnosis from different doctors, therapist, psychiatrist. They all want to just give you a pill not find the root or link of the problem.
      My son is in speech therapy due to severe speech delay. He also had 3 seizures cause unknown when he was 13 months. He is 3 1/2 now. He also shows ADD/ADHD behaviors all ready. I
      I have been researching this link since last night when it dawned on me maybe there is a link between the drug lovenox and my children. I am finding many women with similar stories that it is killing me. I have them on healthy diets. They take fish oil with extra vitamin/mineral supplements. I don’t know where to turn to next. If someone has any answers, please let me know. I will not put my children on meds. My 6 year old was on ADD against my gut feeling, and I took her off of it. She was crying all the time and having meltdowns. Her personality changed.

  4. cj
    September 2, 2011 at 10:58 am

    i had bacterial and staff pneumonia a week b4 i delivered my son on top of having a high risk pregnancy morphine predsoine ect… i never had any mood stabilizers or anything like that

  5. Mel
    September 2, 2011 at 11:01 am

    I took Paxil during both of my pregnancies- I had a single child, who is neurotypical, the first pregnancy; the second pregnancy was twin boys, one with autism and one typical. How would they like to explain that? They are too quick to look for something to blame for autism.

    • September 2, 2011 at 3:05 pm

      I think there is a lot to learn and how interesting that you had twin boys. Are they identical twins?

  6. September 2, 2011 at 11:02 am

    My son was DX with Autism,Generalized Anxiety,ADHD,OCD,and Tic Disorder…While I was pregnant I took Digoxin and Tambacor prescribed when my son was a 13 week old fetus for his Tachycardia..I often wonder if any of these drugs contributed to his difficulties…Which i might add were present since birth NOT after a Vaccine…Any Ideas???

  7. Heidi B.
    September 2, 2011 at 11:09 am

    Thank you for the level-headed thoughts. I’m seven months pregnant and on SSRIs. My 4 year-old has Autism and the recent medical studies have had me worried. I guess we can only do the best we can with what we know. :-)

    • emily
      September 2, 2011 at 3:15 pm

      did you take an SSRI with your 4 year old son?

    • Alicia
      September 28, 2011 at 5:06 am

      I was taking Zoloft while pregnant and my son was also born with Autism. Here is what I would do if could back in time and hope you consider this.
      Make sure not to consume fish at all. Avoid mercury and other toxins at all costs.
      Avoid all types of stress and force your self to relax, take yoga or swimming if you must.
      Avoid chemical exposure, even if minimal, I mean… even Windex!
      This may sound excessive, but I think that if you have no choice but to take the SSRIs, then make sure you are not passing absolutely no other toxins to the baby.
      Once he or she is born, I would suggest that you ensure to avoid vaccines. I do not feel vaccines are bad for all children. However, I know they ARE bad for those who are already intoxicated at birth.
      Blessings and my best to you and your little angel.

  8. Misty
    September 2, 2011 at 11:28 am

    I completely understand the reasoning behind the studies being conducted into the potential causes of the increase of Autism. However, there are 2 people involved in the conception, and scientists need to look beyond the uterus. Environmental factors have been proven to damage and decrease sperm, and so they have to give equal weight to meds, and any other factors they look at the mothers for, except what is ingested from conception and beyond. I am tired of this being portrayed as a one sided where mom may have gone wrong issue, because every mom out there has covered this topic since the moment that she knew something wasn’t right. And the mother usually knows far before anyone else will even acknowledge that there is a problem.

  9. September 2, 2011 at 11:40 am

    I think its in our genes. Looking back at my family history.

  10. Cicely
    September 2, 2011 at 11:53 am

    I was given doses of magnesium and terbutaline in the hospital to stop my premature labor and was sent home with terbutaline pills to take to make sure I wont go back into premature labor.

    I have always said that those meds are the reason my child has Aspergers.

  11. tps
    September 2, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    I think there is a relationship to the huband also being on antidepressants. This truely should be researched more too.

  12. norma
    September 2, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    I think misty hit the nail on the head . More than likely it is in our genes but maybe environmental factors are what trigger the onset or development Of ASD.

  13. September 2, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    I was perscribed ” Promethazine ” durring my 1st pregnancy a ” cass C” anti-nausia drug. My son seemed fine at birth even made all his mile stones until about age 2 when ALL progression STOPPED ! He was diagnosed with moderate to severe Autism at age 4, though I knew in my heart long before then. I don’t know if the medication contributed or caused his Autism, was it there since birth or did something change at age 2 ? With every new theory and study that I read it just seems to further my feeling that for every new piece if information we learn about Autism, we find a million more questions.

  14. Kay Barber
    September 2, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    My son’s doctor told us infertility treatments & prematurity were 2 factors that may have been the causes of his autism. I saw another comment about heprin – that was one of the medications I took while I was pregnant. I wonder if we’ll ever know.

  15. September 2, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    I have two children. My son has high functioning autism, my daughter is neuro-typical. I had no drugs with either. My son’s delivery was unremarkable. Pitocin used during both deliveries. I understand the need to look at the causes aspect of this disorder, but everyone is so quick to deliver news that hasn’t been given a full study. But also, this article says “increased risk”. EVERY pregnancy is different, EVERY child is different. I wish more would be done to help the children already living with this, and more being done to find a COMMON underlying cause.

    • Dixie
      September 2, 2011 at 5:58 pm

      Pitocen has a warning on the lable can cause Autism with it’s use. My son worked in a pharmacy center that clearly states on the lable it can cause this.
      My Grandson has Autism, non verbal, he lost his words at age 18 months after the mmr shot.
      He became a different person. I think that many of these things together cause Autism, each child is different and what may not push one child over the edge into Autism may for another.

  16. September 2, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    what about high blood pressure medications? i was on high doses of Aldomet during my pregnancy with my first born and he is on the spectrum, I also took Aldomet again during my second pregnancy but in smaller doses, he’s only 10 months and developing normally so far.

  17. Amy
    September 2, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    I’d love to know if Zofran is on the radar to be studied. With baby #2, now 16, I had such bad hyperemesis that I did not produce enough amniotic fluid and was hospitaizd for 6 weeks. By the time we were pregnant with #3, Zofran had hit the market and was a ‘miracle’ for me. I was able to stay home and even gained 11 lb during my pregnancy. Two years later, with #4, I was taking it every 8 hours from the moment I found out, on the advice of my doctor of course. Our #3 is very high functioning but on the spectrum. #4 is not as high functioning and her issues were obvious from a very, very young age. Since my husband and I have a nearly 10 year split between our second and third child, and they share parents, the genetic link puzzles me.

  18. Krystal Thomas
    September 2, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    I think that as parents instead of questioning what caused our child’s ASD we should focus our time and energy on helping them to adjust to the challenges that they will have to overcome with this disorder. There is nothing we can do about it after the fact and questioning why won’t do anything but drive us crazy. It’s a reality now and we have to face it head on to give our children the best outcome possible. Also ASD is a congenital disorder, meaning it is present from birth, whether it is apparent or not is a whole other thing. This disorder is simply not always active from birth. Children can develop normally and then regress or simply stop developing, it doesn’t mean that is when the child acquired the disorder, just that it is when it became active and caused a visible issue, it was always there.

    ASD Parent Educator for ND and parent of one amazing ASD child.

  19. September 2, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    With my son, I was put back on Paxil just before the third trimester since I deal with clinical depression. He has autism. I took Paxil the entire 9 months I was pregnant with my daughter and no autism – in fact she’s in the gifted program.

    I remember there being a study showing a high correlation with depression diagnosed in a family & autism. Since autism is sometimes also treated with SSRI’s, it seems more likely that it is a similar illness rather than the depression medication being a causative.

    We’ve recently had two other members of my husband’s family – nephew & first cousin once removed – diagnosed with Aspergers and neither mother was on antidepressants. So, I refuse to feel guilty about taking a necessary medication.

  20. Tina Rhodes
    September 2, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    Took Zoloft with both pregnancies,one is autistic and the other not.What if its in our genes and the multiple vaccines triggers autism? my son was fine till his MMAR vaccine at 18 months.Daughter has not had them and is fine.There are so many what ifs….All i know is my son is different and awesome at the same time!

  21. Katie Wright
    September 2, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    I had a totally normal, easy pregnancy. I worked FT until my delivery.
    I felt great, no problems at all.

    Prenatal medications are not properly studied for pregnant women, and false assurances are too easily given. However, for most women the issues are primarily postnatal.

  22. Michele Depew
    September 2, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    I have seizures due to head injury at a car accident. I was taking tegretol and phenobarbitol while carrying my two girls. My first child was born fine, the other is autistic. If I didn’t take my medication it would have been dangerous for me, but no one had told me that it could possible affect my daughter.

    • Amanda
      November 21, 2011 at 1:16 am

      My best friend is wondering the same thing. She is epileptic and took Tegretol during pregnancy and her 3 1/2 year old is Autistic. She is a first time mother and younger and I am 10 years older than her with 3 kids. I was there at her sons birth and have been extremly close to him his whole life. I knew from a little baby that something was different but of course was not going to mention it to her. As he grew older it became more apparent to me yet I wasn’t sure how to approach it. He is always over and playing with my kids and is very social so I kept thinking maybe Im just wrong. It was when they moved in with me and I was helping her care for him that I finally mentioned something and she accepted it very well. Her neurologist observed him one day at an appointment and looked at her and even asked her if she took tegretol (she didnt have him as her doc yet when she was pregnant) and she replied yes and he said you need to get him evaluated immediatly and get him started in therapies. Her ob/gyn NEVER said one word that it “could” be dangerous to the fetus whereas my ob/gyn always looked up every med I was on to check the category of the med and if it was beyond a cat C he would change m to a safe one. She now does everything beneficial for her sons autism like changed his diet to completly Gluten free, Casion free, Soy free, and dairy free and uses A LOT of visual aids. I spent hours and hours doing research for her and even made a recipe book of Gluten free meals. Between therapies, diet changes, and support at home and when he is with me he has made tremendous progress. Learning the proper way to discipline him and handle the meltdowns has helped too. She is wondering if her ob/gyn should be held responsible for the neglegence in not checking to see if the medications she was on could be harmful or if the makers of Tegretol could be held responsible. Its a long shot but Im going to check it out for her. I just want to prevent him from “missing something” in his other current and future patients.

  23. Noreen
    September 2, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    I wonder about epigenetics. I also wonder about ALL of our vaccines/injections. I have my husbands record (i think he had 8 shots) and he was given the OPV (oral polio). I think a lot of us were. It’s NOT SAFE to give now LOL! Hhmmmm The DPT well this and the MMR have the MOST complaints about it. It’s the Autistic person or one that has allergies that will suffer the Adverse Reaction, so yes, they should be given a Medical Exemption. Also, they say that the baby has an immature Central Nervous System (and some possible Jaundice) basically trying to get by and develop their brains (they double in size in the first year) YET we Innudate their system with 36 doses of crap including another human being’s cell (aborted fetus) and this won’t cause autoimmunity? or problems? What person do you know that injects stuff into their body is Healthy? All this stuff is unnatural and more than half of it is OUTRIGHT uncalled for. I also wonder about the MALE factor and how many chemicals the Men out to WAR were exposed to. I do believe the main cause of it is Unnatural things sprayed, injected or inhaled but we really need to find out in order to Clean Up our act. I’m convinced MaJority of it is ENVIRONMENTAL.

  24. Katie Wright
    September 4, 2011 at 10:16 am

    totally agree w/ you Noreen

  25. Nga Nguyen (Teresa)
    September 4, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    I have a 6 year old son who was diagnosed with ASD exactly 2 years ago.
    I remember very well that I was given the medication” terbutaline” to stop my premature labor (This happened during my pregnancy in 2004).
    After reading this article, I actually felt a sense of relief knowing that this same medication may have caused my son to be autistic. It’s been 3 sad and stressful years not knowing what I might have done wrong.
    Thank you for the helpful information.

  26. usethebrainsgodgiveyou
    September 5, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Very informative. I am glad to see the valproic acid studies linked here.

  27. September 7, 2011 at 10:28 am

    While it is an educated guess, many pregnant women find this calculator helpful in the planning for the arrival of their baby. Only five percent of babies arrive on their due date. The pregnancy due date calculator remains an important tool, so that proper prenatal care is given

    Pregnant Quiz

  28. Carol
    September 15, 2011 at 10:38 pm

    My son is now 25 yrs old. I had a perfect pregnancy and delivery. I was not taking any medications during pregnancy, nor any drugs or alcohol. I was shocked when he was diagnosed developmentally delayed early on, then moderately mentally handicapped and later autistic in addition. It was totally out of the blue as his older sister was “normal”. So I think the origin of this condition is still very unknown.

  29. Alicia
    September 28, 2011 at 5:38 am

    Autism is a Spectrum. A “Spectrum”: a word that has been given due to lack of a better name. There may be a miryad of causes since we seem to be talking about a label that is too huge to refer to just one illness. There is so much research to be done still.,,,
    I can only account for my son’s case because I have studied it to the core. I did take SSRI’s and my son’s autism was a consequence of that, added to possible genetic predisposition and environmental toxins. He has high levels of mercury in his body and he is currently undergoing chelation.
    If his heavy metal poisoning was solely due to environmental factors and is mainly inorganic, he probably would have a higher chance of recovery. We will wait and see. Organic poisoning may pose a harder challange… He is only 3 now and I am amazed each day as I see how cleaning his body of toxins and metals is helping him thrive.
    My advise to pregnant women undergoing deppression is: If you have exposed your child to SSRI’s or strong medicines while pregnant, then it is important not to expose him to further toxicity once he/she is born. This medicine will likely affect your child, but the damage can be reversible. Avoid toxins at all costs, during and after pregnancy. This also includes stress as oxidative stress is toxic to your body. Eat plenty of antioxidants! And please remember: Vaccines are for children who are born unintoxicated, not for those who are already at risk. Also avoid pesticides and feed your child only organic food. I would also look into taking natural liquid zeolite supplementation. They are safe to be consumed by pregnant women and babies and do wonders in terms of keeping our bodies free of toxins.

    We must face it. SSRIs are predisposing the little ones to possible toxic consequences. If we have no choice but to take them while pregnant, we must ensure to take every step necessary to ensure no other sources of toxins for our babies before and also after they are born.

    I wish I had known all this when my son was younger and in utero. My best to all of you who are pregnant and on SSRI’s. Don’t worry! Your child will be just fine if you simply relax and sit down to plan a future as free of toxins as possible. And please…. avoid vaccines!!!! They are made for healthy children and not for children who may be already intoxicated. Don’t listen to those who say vaccines are just fine for kids. They obviosly have not had a child who has clearly and noticeably regressed in development due to vaccines and they obviously know little about factors are predispose certain children to toxicity overload once vaccinated.


  30. Delores
    October 7, 2011 at 10:17 pm

    I’ve read a lot of articles recently that link Autism to children who’s mother took Zoloft while pregnant. I think its really sad that these women trusted their doctors and now their children are suffering because of it. There is an attorney in Webster, Texas, Chad Pinkerton that is helping women get support for their children. His ad states he is available 24/7 at 1-855-ZOLOFT1.

  31. natalie
    October 21, 2011 at 9:14 am

    i have 3 boys one is 16 , very healthy , very smart, a 14 year old very healthy , very smart.when he was 2 i was put on the anti anxiety pill klonopin and took it for 12 years, and saw a doctor as well… i got pregnant with my 3rd son and the obgyn told me to continue to take it or i could hurt myself or hurt the baby, my son was born fine , in good health the doctors said when i left the hospital…..2 years later he was diagnosed with autism spectum disorder, he is now 5 and we are fighting autism together…..what should i think about all this

  32. Cordelia Hanley
    October 25, 2011 at 9:35 am

    There may be a link to autism and antidepressant use in women who were pregnant at the time. That is what I have read and seen for myself on different articles on the news and on different webpages. Has anyone else seen this or heard of anything similar?

  33. mya
    October 28, 2011 at 9:36 am

    I am a lawyer who handles mass torts. Recent medical research shows that taking Zoloft (or other SSRI’s) during pregnancy is linked to autism. Originally, research did not find the connection, but we now have evidence of the link. I am very sensitive to this issue because it has impacted my family. I am only trying to spread the word so people can protect their rights and the rights of their children. You can go to chadpinkerton.com for more information or contact me at 1-855-ZOLOFT-1. If this is out of line, I apologize in advance. My intention is only to help. And, I can help.

  34. November 14, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    I also wonder about the different methods used to induce a woman into labor. What if any findings are there that link medical induction versus a natural induction method such as acupressure? Just wondering if medical induction can cause autism.

  35. usethebrainsgodgiveyou
    November 21, 2011 at 11:13 am

    Remember when doctors had mothers start smoking cigarettes to “calm their nerves”.?

    My Grandma had a tin sign at the grocery store she ran that claimed “My Doctor smokes Camels”. Wish I had that sign now.

  36. December 2, 2011 at 3:24 am

    Thank you for the post, I am very interested and was wondering if anyone else had any other related posts they could suggest. I like writing blog articles myself and would like to gather as much information as I can.

  37. Pamela
    February 3, 2012 at 9:22 am

    Hello Dr. Halladay,

    Thank you for your response regarding the delicate subject of taking medications while pregnant. I have a 7 year old child with high-functioning autism. I took Fluvoximine during my 2nd & 3rd trimester only. Am I to understand that there’s a good chance that the Fluvox caused her autism? If this is the cause, why don’t we let the public know, definitely? Right now, only lawyers seem to back up this “finding”! That doesn’t make me comfortable. I wish they would stay out of it and let the medical community speak.

  38. maggie
    February 23, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    I was on paxil 20 mg for apx 2 months. I weaned and totally quit 8 weeks before conceiving. do my unborn child have an increased risk of developing ASD because of this???

  1. September 2, 2011 at 11:38 am
  2. September 30, 2011 at 5:06 am
  3. February 2, 2012 at 5:20 pm

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